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Clearing the Water in Hawaii’s Kaneohe Bay

Clean, clear water is especially important for tourism and healthy coral reefs in Hawai’i. And, believe it or not, traditional Hawaiian farming techniques are making a difference. Thanks to a program called “Ho’opa’a Ka Lepo,” or “hold back the dirt,” started by the Papahana Kuaola organization, the water quality in Kaneohe Bay is getting better. The farming techniques reduce runoff from Oahu’s streams into the bay and, thus, protect its coral reefs from excess sediment.

In ancient Hawaiian culture, lo’i (or irrigated pond fields) were used to grow taro, a staple of Hawaiian cuisine. Traditionally, farmers would divert only enough water from nearby streams to water their crops, leaving enough for nearby farms to do the same. These systems trap sediment runoff as it flows by and then slowly release it. This prevents excess sediments and nutrients from overloading the bay and ocean downstream.

While tourists expect to see clean, clear water when they visit, local residents know what happens during heavy rains—the water turns brown from excess runoff.  When too much sediment flows into the bay, it can bury coral and reduces the light and food that can reach them. Corals are a valuable resource: they provide recreation and tourism opportunities, protect coasts from storms, and are home to many fish and wildlife species.

The NOAA Restoration Center funded this project with its partner, the Hawai’i Community Foundation. The project uses volunteers—including many who are involved through the Hawai’i Community Work Day program—to remove invasive species and plant the lo’i fields. Eventually, four acres of taro will be planted, and students and teachers will help collect data on erosion and the amount of sediment in the water.

A lo'i field in Hawai'i

A lo'i field in Hawai'i