Of course the water had already receded by the time I made it out there. For over a week, I’d watched the nearly flooded Kealia wetlands slosh over the entrance to the boardwalk parking lot on North Kihei Road. I’d driven past there each morning, day after day, amazed that the wetlands on the makai side of the road were now nearly as lake-like as those on the mauka side. I’d seen the wetlands filled with water, but not this much water, and now the parking lot itself looked like it would soon vanish.
The reason for the flooding is a mix of recent weather and land use, according to Courtney Brown, the Visitor Services Manager for the Kealia National Wildlife Refuge (NWR).
“Yes, there is a high water level at Kealia Pond and subsequently the Kealia Coastal Boardwalk,” said Brown in a Nov. 8 email. “The high water is due to the changes in the water flow of the Waikapu watershed streams that flow into the backside of the refuge, less water being diverted from these streams for agricultural crops (i.e. sugar cane) and rainfall levels that are no longer at a drought level.”
This is fascinating. Equally fascinating is Brown’s explanation that the wetland water level is what it is, and there’s not a whole lot the NWR people can do about it.
“Unless there is a safety issue, the Refuge will not breach the sandplug at the stream outlet by the Kealia Coastal Boardwalk (where the waterflows under the State Highway via a small culvert into the Refuge mudflats and coastal dune habitat) as there are concerns related to the Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act,” said Brown. “The rapid loss of water from the Ponds can cause nest failure, endanger chick survival and inhibit reproductive success for the endangered Hawaiian coot and Hawaiian stilt, and the large volume of turbid water can be detrimental to the nearshore reef and animals in the bay.”
Though the water levels in the wetlands were very high when Brown wrote her email to me (Nov. 8) and she didn’t “expect the water to recede anytime soon,” the water level receded dramatically just a few days later (probably due to evaporation or what Brown termed a “natural breach of the sandplug,” or maybe a combination of both). Still, it’s important to keep in mind that “the Refuge cannot control the water that comes into the wetlands,” said Brown. Which means the high water in the wetlands may soon return.
“As we are coming into the wet season of winter, these conditions are likely to persist,” Brown said “The Refuge will be posting signs to notify the public of potential water in the parking lot and that altering the stream channel is prohibited as it can be harmful to wildlife and may subject one to criminal or civil fines.”