It was an eerily diminished world that Koko and I went walking in this cool morning. The haze — or vog, if you will — was thick, obliterating Waialeale and Haupu and reducing Makaleha to a hulking outline. Great clumps of mist clung to the pastures and drifted up and out onto the road, and the sun rose wan and faintly orange, as if it couldn’t quite muster the energy to make its presence fully known.
This is very un-Kauai-like, remarked my neighbor Andy, whom I met along the road. It seems like someplace else, like someplace I’ve seen somewhere on the mainland.
Yes, I said, someplace where there was a big forest fire burning.
But the air smelled of spider lilies and citrus blossoms, not smoke, and there was no sense of panic or impending disaster in the air, the kind of vibe that gets the adrenalin pumping and prompts people to act.
Right now, we’re acting as if all is well and no worries, even as coastal waters rise and parts of Maui, Molokai, Oahu and the Big Island remain in drought conditions. Rainfall on Waialeale is only 86 percent of normal so far this year, with most of the other gages around the island similarly in the below-normal range.
Water has been on my mind ever since Friday, when I ran into scientist Carl Berg, who is involved in various water quality monitoring projects. He mentioned that as a result of decreased rainfall and stream flows, as well as rising sea levels, salt water was coming all the way up to the Hanalei Bridge now. It’s just a matter of time, he said, until salinity will adversely affect taro production in Hanalei Valley.
So maybe they need to be scouting out dryland taro plots, I said. But Carl noted that climate forecasts indicate continuing low rainfall amounts for the Hawaiian Islands, with much of the year’s total expected to occur in several major events. What that means is that water use will increase, as crops that can now get by largely on rainfall will need to be irrigated. Not to mention all the hotel and vacation rental lawns that get watered to keep them looking lush and lovely for the visitors.
Later that afternoon I took advantage of the warm, sunny weather to go to Makaleha, where I was expecting rushing water and deep swimming holes. I was wrong. The water was shockingly low, more like fall than spring. Yet construction is under way on two big storage tanks there that will hold pull even more water from that stream.
Carl said he’s noticed a distinct complacency, if not outright ignorance, among Kauai folks about the water situation. “I go to these meetings about agriculture and sustainability and everyone says, ‘oh Kauai is the wettest spot on Earth,’” Carl had told me. “Well, not any more.”
Meanwhile, he said, other cities around the nation are encouraging their residents to build personal catchment systems to capture rainfall for garden and other uses, but Hawaii is lagging behind.
Similarly, California launched a major initiative to determine how sea level rise will impact its coastline, with the idea that this information will be used to assess new construction and transportation projects and help residents figure out what they must do to deal with the floods, erosion and other effects expected from rising sea levels. As Reuters reported :
Hundreds of thousands of people and billions of dollars of Golden State infrastructure and property would be at risk if ocean levels rose 55 inches by the end of the century, as computer models suggest, according to the report.
Roads, schools, hospitals, sewage plants and power plants may have to be relocated. More than 330 hazardous waste sites are at risk from floods.
It’s the kind of information that would be useful before sinking more money into a coastal bike path, road projects at Nawiliwili and other expensive local infrastructure, much less waiving coastal setback requirements for lavish homes.
And in Alaska, as CNN reports, flooding blamed on climate change is forcing the coastal Eskimo village of Newtok to move inland — and the same fate is likely to befall others:
The village, home to indigenous Yup'ik Eskimos, is the first of possibly scores of threatened Alaskan communities that could be abandoned.
Warming temperatures are melting coastal ice shelves and frozen sub-soils, which act as natural barriers to protect the village against summer deluges from ocean storm surges.
"We are seeing the erosion, flooding and sinking of our village right now," said Stanley Tom, a Yup'ik Eskimo and tribal administrator for the Newtok Traditional Council.
The article reports that the effects of climate change are likely to affect indigenous people most dramatically.
But in Hawaii, which is deeply vulnerable to both the effects of drought and sea level rise, the subject has been pretty much met with a total denial or one big yawn, save for one bill— introduced by Kauai Rep. Mina Morita and others — to create an economic development task force charged with ensuring Hawaii "is energy and food self-sufficient and sustainable to the maximum extent feasible, and help Hawaii's natural resources and humankind adapt and be resilient to the inevitable challenges brought on by climate change."
It’s not a perfect bill, because the panel is to be staffed with a lot of the administrative duds who currently have their heads in the sand.
But it’s a start, and at least some folks in the Lege recognize that the climate changes are already starting — and that portends perilous times for the Islands.