It’s a big job, but someone’s gotta do it. Many people envisioned a restored Kawainui (translation: the big water) with that thought in mind; then they rolled up their sleeves and joined the fun of making it happen.
One enduring advocate for restored, healthy wetlands in the Kailua ahupua‘a is biologist Dave Smith. The Lanikai native wears the hat of O‘ahu branch manager of the state’s Forestry and Wildlife Division in the Department of Land and Natural Resources. Other hats within that role are grant writer, refuge coordinator, shorebird advocate, substitute maintenance supervisor and all-around day-to-day taskmaster of O‘ahu’s wetland treasures.
“People in the Kailua community and its immediate neighbors really want to enjoy Kawainui,” says Smith, who now lives 5 minutes from the marsh on the Kane‘ohe side. “It has island-wide, state and international significance, and it could be a world-class destination for all kinds of reasons.”
This is what keeps Smith going after 23 years as a wildlife biologist with the state—the last 15 in his “dream job,” slogging through Hamakua and Kawainui, poking at the budgetary barriers that slow progress to re-create a clean, thriving functional wetland. Better equipment and more staff would help. Also on the wish list: public access, signage, trails, more land acquisitions and some super aquatic excavators.
“It’s terrific as a potential resource,” he points out, “but it’s going to take quite a bit of our resources (to make it happen). So we do what we can with what we have.”
What we have, finally, is an official partnership between the Army Corps of Engineers and the DLNR on the construction of the Kawainui Marsh Wetland Restoration and Habitat Enhancement Project. The official agreement was signed July 29 for the project, which covers 37.8 acres of the ancient 830-acre marsh that was sacred to Hawaiians. It will focus on the wildlife habitat component of the 1994 Kawainui Marsh Master Plan and the Hawai‘i Endangered Waterbird Recovery Plans.
“Without restoration,” the partners stated last summer, “the marsh will remain in a state of degradation with little wildlife and community use values.”
This project is a first step to restore the marsh and enhance its habitat. The money is also there—about $5 million federal and $1 million in state funds and grants (including the Harold K.L. Castle Foundation)—and Smith says the Hawai‘i-based contractor, Helber Hastert & Fee, is very familiar with the work required.
The ACE will construct 11 terraced shallow ponds, put in an earthen berm system and solar-powered water pumps, and Smith says the state is to remove invasive vegetation, which he calls “that peat stuff.”
“There’s an incredible volume of it, and it will be a gigantic challenge to clear out.” Another key to putting balance back into the marsh’s important drainage system is to remediate Kahanaiki Stream, which flows through the marsh.
“It will be similar to our work at Hamakua,” Smith adds. Just downstream of Kawainui, the Hamakua wetland already is back in shape as a thriving refuge for endangered waterbirds. It’s a visual delight to bird lovers walking past on Hamakua Drive. As for its prized residents—the koloa maoli (Hawaiian duck), ae‘o (stilt), ‘alae‘ula (moorhen) and ‘alae ke‘oke‘o (coot)—they don’t mind one bit.
Other plans are in the works, all of them intended to engage the community with government agencies and planners.
Meanwhile, Smith acknowledges the contributions of schoolchildren, lawmakers and dedicated groups and volunteers like Chuck Burrows, who have kept the cause alive for so long.
“The best part of my job is to go out and look around, see all the good work our folks are doing. Crews are working every day, doing a really good job. It reassures me that my work in the office is productive.”
Meanwhile, Smith and his wife have grown another legacy for the land: One son is an arborist, another is into GIS (geographic information systems), and their daughter is an ecological engineer.