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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Friday, January 31, 2003

Lots of junk in Ala Wai mud, but no bodies

By Wade Kilohana Shirkey

Project superintendent Dan Mahnke of American Marine didn't know what to expect when he took on the monumental task of dredging the Ala Wai Canal.

With each project in cities as diverse as San Francisco, San Diego, Portland, Seattle and Los Angeles, different "secrets" lurked beneath the water.

He remembers a Waikiki taxi driver joking to passengers that the otherwise beautiful and idyllic silver ribbon of Ala Wai was filled with grocery carts, refrigerators — and tourists!

That expectation stuck in Mahnke's mind.

It seemed to be a common theme among local folks, he said. "Everyone's first question: 'And, bodies?' "

"I'm curious about this preoccupation with bodies ... It makes me concerned about living here," he joked.

But no bodies have turned up. No refrigerators. And no tourists.

Basketballs are the real story. "After the first (big) rain, you wouldn't believe the number of balls washing into the canal," he said.

"You could walk across" the assortment of everything from basketballs and volleyballs to ping pong and beach balls, said Mahnke.

There are plenty of grocery carts, as many as a dozen some days, he said. Tires have been the most common find, though. That's their largest problem, Mahnke said.

Among the more unexpected problems are metal crab and fish traps. "We actually have to cut those off our propellers," Mahnke said.

Except for two spectacular finds — a giant shrimp and thick layers of tilapia — Mahnke deems the project "actually sorta boring."

When finished in July, the approximately year-long dredging project will actually leave a canal-within-a-canal, a 150-foot-wide central channel, with shallower depths near the walls to preserve their structural integrity.

The project, Mahnke explained, is more correctly sifting and sorting, than dredging. While the mud is easily scooped and taken to an EPA-approved dump spot four miles off the reef runway, debris in it must be sifted, washed and sorted into various types. Tree trunks and biodegradable materials go to landfills. Tires are taken for recycling at Campbell Industrial Park. The operation is driven not by volume (of dredged material), but by cost and time for sorting, Mahnke said.

He said the once-controversial project has faded into part of daily life and out of public consciousness, except perhaps for passers-by flashing appreciative "shakas."

Jim Ferris of the Hawaii Yacht Club praised the project in a recent letter to the editor, saying the double scows bearing sludge move quietly and slowly, giving lee to junior sailors at the two nearby yacht clubs and Friday-night canoe racers. Ferris described the comings and goings of scow and tug as "almost entertaining."

One elderly Waikiki high-rise dweller agrees, but does have one complaint: As the barge moves farther down the canal, she can no longer watch the goings-on.

She's lost her daily entertainment.

The Advertiser's Wade Kilohana Shirkey is kumu of Na Hoaloha O Ka Roselani No'eau halau. He writes on Island life.