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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, October 6, 2007

No funding for floating Waikiki canal plants

Photo galleryPhoto gallery: Ala Wai cleanup project on hold
Video: Cleaning up the Ala Wai with plants

By Mary Vorsino
Advertiser Urban Honolulu Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

A golfer passes rafts of 'akulikuli in the stream adjacent to the driving range of the Ala Wai Golf Course. Those rafts also create small ecosystems, where birds can find fish and fish can feed on roots.

JOAQUIN SIOPACK | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Despite a successful demonstration project that ended a year ago, a plan to clean water in the Ala Wai Canal with large floating beds of 'akulikuli plants has gone nowhere because project developers have been unable to attract any funding.

Chad Durkin, project manager, said he has been unable to secure money from the city or state, so has now turned to the federal government, where the project will be competing against hundreds of similar requests.

Durkin estimates it would cost about $1.5 million to install the plants along the length of the canal and maintain them for three years.

"We're kind of stuck looking for public funding," said Durkin, of Natural Systems Inc., which still operates a small 'akulikuli project through its foundation arm in a canal next to the Ala Wai Golf Course.

The original demonstration project, which was financed with a $500,000 federal grant and installed near the Kapahulu end of the Ala Wai, succeeded in pulling contaminants from the water and did not conflict with other uses in the canal, including paddling, according to a report on the project that has not yet been released publicly.

According to the report, there was "a marked uptake of nutrients and heavy metals by the 'akulikuli plants" over the course of the demonstration project, which wrapped up in July 2006.

LITTLE IMPACT ON CANAL

However, the project was too small and several variables, including heavy rains, were too great to significantly affect water in the canal. Still, Durkin pointed out the success of the 'akulikuli plants is laboratory-proven, and they are relatively inexpensive compared to other water cleanup methods, including dredging or water flushing.

"Mainly what we were demonstrating was the ability of these plants to survive in the canal and co-exist with other users," Durkin said. "Ideally, we'd like to fund the full-scale implementation."

David Penn, a water-quality coordinator for the Department of Health, said the difficulty for agencies looking to fund the project and ones like it likely boils down to a lack of definitive results.

"We know the system does function to remove pollutants," he said.

"But we don't know what the overall capacity of the system would be on a large scale, and we don't know what the cost-effectiveness is."

Without funding, the project which uses a process called phytoremediation is stalled indefinitely. Meanwhile, there are no other plans under way to improve the murky, brackish waters in the Ala Wai Canal, which consistently fail water-quality standards tests.

Pollution washes into the Ala Wai from streams and storm drains across urban Honolulu. Scores of natural and manmade pollutants can be found in the Ala Wai, ranging from excess fertilizer to sediment to bacteria from livestock and pet waste that wash into street gutters.

POLLUTANTS SETTLE

The canal leads into the ocean and is partially flushed with each tide, but pollutants are still able to settle into the floor of the canal. The dirtiest parts of the canal are found farthest from its mouth to the ocean.

According to the Health Department, the average nitrogen concentrations in the canal are about six times accepted state standards, and total phosphorus concentrations are double acceptable levels.

These pollutants, which eventually end up in the ocean, cause a wide range of problems, including decreasing the amount of oxygen in the water, which kills off species and promotes algae growth. Nitrogen and phosphorus also contribute to the muddiness of the canal and its notorious odor.

Bacteria is also a big concern in the Ala Wai, and paddlers often report getting infections after coming in contact with canal water.

Many paddling groups abandoned the canal altogether following the March 2006 sewage spill, which sent 48 million gallons of raw sewage into the waterway after a city pipe burst during heavy rains.

But Luana Froiseth, chairwoman of the Waikiki Canoe Club Board, said advocates should spend more time cleaning up waterways that lead into the Ala Wai and concentrate less on the canal itself.

"You can't clean the Ala Wai unless you clean the water from the mountain," she said. "Truthfully, I don't think Ala Wai is the issue."

For that reason, Froiseth said she is not in favor of expanding the 'akulikuli phytoremediation project. The club lost about 100 paddlers, mostly children, after the March 2006 spill. Many other paddling groups moved to Ke'ehi Lagoon and decided to stay there.

AGAINST CITY FUNDING

City Councilman Charles Djou, whose district includes Waikiki, said he supports the project but doesn't think the city should fund it. The city oversees some of the banks of the canal, while the state manages the rest along with the floor of the Ala Wai and testing for water quality.

"I do think it is a good idea trying to do something natural to clean up the Ala Wai, which has the reputation of being one of the most polluted waterways on the island," Djou said.

"But it is not something typical that the city investigates or invests money in. Scientific research and other things that are experimental, these are things the state or federal government should invest in."

Meanwhile, state Sen. Ron Menor, chairman of the Senate Energy, Environment and International Affairs Committee, said he would be open to searching for funds for the phytoremediation project.

"Every effort to improve water quality in the Ala Wai Canal is good because it is a precious natural resource and asset," he said.

Though the state has no short-term plans to clean up the Ala Wai Canal, officials are considering several options in the long run.

The state Department of Land and Natural Resources has proposed installing four high-pressure saltwater wells at the Kapahulu end of the canal to flush out pollutants. But spokeswoman Deborah Ward said the proposal is currently "not active."

The most recent major effort to clean up the waterway ended in 2003, when the state finished a $7.4 million dredging project to remove muck and trash from the floor of the waterway. Dredging of the 2-mile canal to a depth of 6 to 12 feet took about a year.

The next dredging is scheduled for 2013.

It had been about 20 years since the last dredging was completed, and sediment and debris had left the canal only inches deep in sections.

Durkin said the phytoremediation project would have to extend along the length of the Ala Wai to make a difference in water quality.

ROOT OF THE MATTER

Even then, he said, other measures such as reducing runoff would have to be taken to get the water quality to acceptable levels.

"This isn't a silver-bullet project," he said.

Still, he pointed out the project is cheaper than other water-quality improvement measures, easier to install and is ecologically friendly.

'Akulikuli clean water by dropping their roots into the water, where bacteria and other microorganisms colonize them. The plants and bacteria take up nitrogen and other contaminants as nutrients.

The plants, which do not naturally float, are placed on rafts secured to the edge of the canal. Those rafts also create small ecosystems, where birds can find fish and fish can feed on roots.

Durkin is overseeing a small phytoremediation project in a canal next to the golf course that leads into the Ala Wai. The sister project is meant mostly as a teaching tool for students.

Reach Mary Vorsino at mvorsino@honoluluadvertiser.com.

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