Concerns swell over stream debris
The city contends maintenance is a more complex issue than residents see
When heavy rains cause water in nearby streams to spill over their banks, Felix Pacyau and Jacob Ng have a pretty good idea what is causing the problem: debris clogged under bridges or in storm drains.
Pacyau also knows it is time to get his lawnmower and other objects in his Waikane home off the ground.
"I'm immune to that already. I know what to expect," said Pacyau, 66, who has for more than 50 years lived makai of the highway near where streams converge toward the ocean.
From Windward Oahu to the North Shore to urban Honolulu, several major streams, ditches and other waterways overflowed flooding homes, businesses and major arteries during the recent six-week long deluge.
Ng and Pacyau are frustrated that flooding continues to occur even though they see maintenance as the simple solution. But the city says making rivers and streams less prone to flooding is a more complex issue with multiple ownership, changing environmental factors, manmade obstruction and lack of money and manpower.
Pacyau said he thinks cleaning beneath a nearby bridge and clearing more brush on the makai side of the highway will help the water flow.
"It's just like a bottleneck right there. The water cannot flow because the hau trees blocks the water that moves over into the stream," Pacyau said. "It's all plugged. That's why it backed up, backed up, backed up."
Lifelong Haleiwa resident Ng knows that when it rains hard on the North Shore rushing waters and debris travel down major water arteries like Paukauila Stream only to be clogged at a major storm drainage canal.
"In the recent 40-day rainstorm, the water backed up and it flooded a lot of the areas in Haleiwa," Ng said.
"My basic concern is that none of the governmental agencies have really exerted efforts to maintain and clean up the rivers and streams," Ng said.
About 20 years ago, the state mandated that the counties should maintain channels, streambeds and other drainage not owned by the state or a private entity. It also gave the counties the power to fine private landowners who do not comply with a city notice to maintain their stretch of a stream.
City Council Chairman Donovan Dela Cruz thinks that the city could be doing more to upkeep its streams and drainage. And the city can also step up enforcing laws that mandate private landowners to maintain streams that run on their properties.
Dela Cruz said he is most frustrated because flooding issues have "come up several times and the response hasn't changed. And I think that's the most frustrating thing. I think everyone acknowledges that there is a problem."
Dela Cruz has introduced Bill 49, which would mandate the city inventory its streams. The measure would also require that the city and private landowners conduct annual inspections of their streams, and it requires that the city set up a regular schedule of maintenance.
The bill also sets up a system to charge various owners of a stream should the city clean a stream with multiple owners.
The city has the power to notify and, if necessary, fine a private landowner who does not comply with a notice to clear streams on the property. The city can also go onto the property to clean the streams and then charge the owner for the cost of the cleanup. If the landowner fails to pay the city, then the city can put a lien on the property.
Department of Facilities Maintenance Director Laverne Higa said that when her department issues notices of violation, private property owners are usually compliant when notified that there's an obstruction in their section of the stream.
Last year, Dela Cruz bucked heads with the state over what he saw at the time was a lack of cooperation to clear the state section of Waikane Stream. The state said it didn't have the funds to clear the stream bank. The stalemate was eventually resolved and the mauka side of the highway was cleared just before the heavy rains fell.
Dela Cruz said the maintenance task is made more difficult because as far as he knows there is no accounting of who owns which streams.
Dela Cruz said that there is so much sediment built up in one section of Waikane Stream that it has formed an island in the stream.
Kaukonahua Stream, which feeds into Paukauila Stream, could also be an expensive venture to clean, he said. "If the city wants to clear Kaukonahua Stream, it's not going to be just the normal maintenance of the stream. They have to hire an outside contractor to do some dredging."
But Higa said that dredging is not simple because it's a time-consuming process.
"Even when you do the inspection, even if you do the cleaning of the streams, sometimes it's dredging you need to do and you have to get the permits which takes months," Higa said. "And if you dredge, then where are you going to dispose of the material to be disposed of?"
Ng said the lack of an effective watershed maintenance due to large unused agricultural tracts in Central Oahu is also helping to clog drainage canals and compounding flooding.
"Lands are dormant. Everything flows down to the river and oceans. We're looking at tons and tons of soil running down to the ditches and down river," Ng said.
Manoa Stream runs through the property of Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi.
"Although two years ago, the big flood in Manoa, the whole stream was full of tree trunks and all kinds of junk. I don't know where it came from," Kobayashi said.
Then this past March 31 when Manoa and Makiki were pounded by rain, she said the flooding was different this time around. "A lot of the landslides caused a lot of problems," Kobayashi said. "Houses had a lot of mud sliding down."
Kobayashi, along with many in her district, believe that feral pigs may be partly to blame, eating underbrush mauka of Manoa causing erosion problems and mudslides.
"We need to really have some plan (to clean up debris)," said Kobayashi said.
Before an impending storm hits, Higa's crews go to potential stream troublespots to clear them of debris.
The 200 employees of the Road Maintenance Division in Higa's department are responsible for not only patching potholes and cutting grass but also maintaining streams, ditches and culverts. The current fiscal year's budget is $20 million to do all those duties across the island.
Hiring difficulties and manpower shortages sometimes make it difficult to put crews together.
"It's hard when you don't have people but we do the best with what we have," said John Nigro, assistant storm drain supervisor.