Although Moloka’i is less developed than the rest of Hawai`i, its natural and cultural resources are increasingly threatened by the pressures of new land development, poor land management practices, and a 15-year drought that shows no signs of abating soon. Island residents are committed to improving their stewardship of these resources, and MCSC strongly supports their efforts.
Moloka’i has limited fresh water supplies. Current estimates of available water put the island’s daily sustainable water yield at 33.5 million gallons per day (mgd). The island’s estimated future demand for water is far greater than this amount at a total of 54.45 mgd. Moloka’i’s main potable water wells at Kualapu`u, Kawela and `Ualapu`e are becoming saltier. Millions of gallons of water from the lush eastern portion of the island are pumped daily to the arid western half of the island in order to support rich subdivisions and resort developments, endangering both surface and ground water supplies for the rest of the island. And huge surface water catchment systems have de-watered the streams in three ahupua’a (land divisions) comprising tens of thousands of acres.
In east Moloka’i, the island’s watersheds are being converted from pristine closed-canopy native forest to open non-native grasslands and denuded ridges and gulches. Most of this damage is caused by introduced feral animals such as deer, goats and pigs, whose appetites have decimated the habitats for native plants and animals, destroying large tracts of Moloka’i’s East End native forest watershed. Seasonal wildfires also burn thousands of acres, sometimes including native forests. The areas below the upper watersheds are barren and eroding. The loss of watershed forests has resulted in reduced stream flows, diminished ground water recharge, the disappearance of springs, the loss of native forest resources, and an increase in siltation and flooding on the lands below.
Runoff after rains carries an estimated 214,560 tons of sediment a year into the coastal and offshore ecosystem around the island. Vast areas of the island, particularly in West Moloka’i, are completely bare of vegetation with deep eroded gullies that deposit silt along the shoreline. Earthen shoulders along roads and private dirt road systems also encourage erosion. Without roadside vegetation, after heavy rains, the roads effectively turn into streams, channeling water and sediment flow to the coast. And once in the ocean, eroded sediments are suffocating our reefs and destroying our coastal ecosystem.
Soil erosion and pollution from activities such as sewage discharge, landfill seepage, and commercial and household chemical applications have seriously damaged Moloka`i’s near-shore marine resources. Silt and mud deposits can eventually kill the coral reefs, and toxic wastes from shoreline development are harmful to marine life. In addition to damage from land-based activities, over-harvesting of marine resources by offshore commercial operations, non-resident sport fishers, and uneducated newcomers have devastated Moloka`i’s reef systems, and significantly diminished the resources available for subsistence fishers and gatherers. Fish counts have dropped precipitously over the past few decades, and Moloka`i’s southern barrier reef system (the longest in Hawai'i) is listed as one of the most endangered reefs in the state.
Private citizens and small businesses own just 3% of all the land on Moloka‘i. Molokai Properties Limited is the island’s largest landowner with almost 65,000 acres. MPL is owned by foreign investors in Hong Kong and Singapore.
Although Moloka`i's Hawaiian traditions require that land be protected and nurtured as though it is an older brother, those who still believe in this kind of stewardship have little clout with major landowners. Over the past century, tons of sand from the West End of Moloka`i were mined and shipped to O`ahu to make cement for freeway and hotel construction, and to replace lost sand at Waikiki Beach. Gravel and rocks from East Moloka`i were mined for freeway construction on O`ahu. Poor grazing management techniques and large-scale deforestation on the West End of Moloka`i have contributed to erosion and runoff. And the proliferation of feral animals in the forests of the East End has had similar damaging effects on that part of the island.
Once-productive ancient fishponds have gradually silted in due to poor land management of the lands above the ponds. As the siltation has increased, the ponds have become overgrown with hardy non-native mangrove, which destroys the walls and gradually converts the ponds into fast land. Tsunami waves and storms have also eroded the walls. For centuries the fishponds served as incubators for juvenile fish that eventually repopulated the reefs outside the ponds, and as natural barriers between land activities and Moloka`i’s vast southern coastal reef system. Now that the fishponds are no longer tended, the reef fish population is no longer replenished by fish incubated in the ponds, silt and pollutants are not filtered before reaching the open ocean, and coastal areas are no longer shielded from tidal damage.
After more than a century of over-grazing, land-clearing for pineapple crops, foraging by feral animals, and poor land use management practices, the entire western half of the island has been denuded of ground cover plants and trees. From the West End of Moloka`i to the ahupua`a (land division) of Kawela, the lack of perennial vegetation means that strong winds can blow away rich topsoil and evaporate irrigation water, and that hard rains can wash tons of earth into the ocean.