Climate Change-Related Flooding Threatens Salt Ponds

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For the first time in at least 15 years, salt making families in Hanapēpē, Kauaʻi, will not be able to practice the centuries-old tradition of paʻakai.

Significant flooding from clogged drainage and a late spring rain have put the area underwater. This challenge is just the latest affecting the salt ponds and makers. But this summer they are beginning a restoration project to protect the ponds from climate-change related impacts.

“We cannot control the rain, but we can control how much water is coming over the sand dunes by doing appropriate restoration and developing collective solutions as a community,” said Malia Nobrega-Olivera, president of Hui Hana Paʻakai o Hanapēpē, a nonprofit consisting of 22 salt-making ʻohana, practitioners and area stewards.

She said the sand dunes had already begun to naturally rebound after closing the beach to vehicular traffic in 2018. However, she hopes active restoration will increase the protective function of the dunes as other coastal communities have experienced. “We’re not gonna know until we try.”

Sand dune restoration was identified as a priority action to protect the salt pans in a 2023 report released by the University of Hawaiʻi Sea Grant College Program. The report was based on a hydrologic study that practitioners and researchers conducted between 2018-2022.

Observations in the pond revealed clay layers, which allow for slow water drainage, evaporation, and the concentration of salts and which play a key role in the salt making practice. This and other geologic characteristics make Hanapēpē ideal for salt making. It is the last place in all of Hawaiʻi where the cultivation of paʻakai continues in this manner.

Nobrega-Olivera said scientists have sometimes suggested salt makers simply move their practice up ma uka – but the study illustrated why that isn’t possible. “We cannot just move the practice more up ma uka or move it to another part of the island,” said Nobrega-Olivera. “If that was the case, if it was that easy, we would be making salt all over Hawaiʻi today.”

To support the work identified by the study, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently awarded $445,146 to the County of Kauaʻi Planning Department, the Hui, and UH Sea Grant. In addition to restoration, the funding from the 2023 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law will support the capacity of the Native Hawaiian salt making practitioners to conduct and communicate restoration projects, involve the community in the decision-making process, and remove invasive species.

Flooding is nothing new for the area; it happens every winter. But the amount and timing of the flooding is changing.

According to the National Weather Service, this year’s mid-April heavy rain event resulted in above average totals over the entire island of Kauaʻi. The amount of April rain measured at Port Allen, the gauge next to the salt ponds, exceeded the monthly historical average by about 11 inches. Records for the highest April rainfall were broken at the Anahola, Hanapēpē, Kalāheo, Līhuʻe Airport, Līhuʻe Variety Station, ʻŌmaʻo, and Wailua UH Experiment Station gauges.

Whatever cannot be absorbed by evaporation or drained away from the ponds, remains on the surface. It’s the lack of drainage that concerns Kuʻulei Santos, vice president of the hui.

“All I want to do is get the water out so we can make salt. And if that’s not our goal, and we’re not actively talking about that, there’s nothing else to talk about,” she said. “We’re not gonna have salt this year and if all the entities can’t get aboard and see that, salt making might be gone forever.”

Her father, Frank Santos, has been making salt for 80 years. She herself has been making salt for 40 of her 49 years on earth. She expressed frustration over the lack of cooperation and decision making between the hui, county, and state agencies.

Other issues that have troubled the hui in recent years include conflicts with nearby helicopter companies and polluted runoff made worse by heavy rainfall. For several years, hui members have testified against helicopter companies seeking to expand their operations near the salt ponds.

In 2019, Kauaʻi County ordered one of those companies, Maverick Helicopters, to remove illegal structures it erected near the ponds. The company confirmed that it is no longer operating tours on the island. The absence of at least one helicopter company may bring reprieve to the hui as they face other challenges.

Nobrega-Olivera said hui members met recently to share their concerns over several issues.

“Not knowing if we can make salt or not has had a lot of impact on us. Not just because we don’t have salt. It’s tied to our emotional wellbeing, our spiritual wellbeing,” she said. “Finding solutions is a very high priority for me, personally, for our family, and from what I’m hearing, many – if not all – of the salt families.”