Why Some Hawaiians Are Fighting a Massive Flood-Control Project

Of the nearly 5 million tourists who descend on Waikīkī and its beach in Honolulu every year, few are likely aware that the beachfront destination used to be a sprawling wetland. Here, on the island of Oahu, Hawaiians cultivated taro and built fishponds to raise ‘ama ‘ama (striped mullet). Later, farmers grew rice in wide, irrigated paddies. It was a fertile delta.

In the first part of the 20th century, Hawai‘i’s territorial governor and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers filled the fishponds and dredged the two-mile-long Ala Wai Canal, draining the wetlands and setting the stage for a century of hotel and condominium development.

This history has come to the fore in recent weeks as a battle over a proposed $345 million flood-control project for Waikīkī has played out in the community and in Hawai‘i’s courts.

The plan to harden the Ala Wai

Waikīkī is a three-block-wide stretch between the Ala Wai Canal and the ocean, located at the base of a steep, densely populated watershed. It’s a major economic engine, responsible for 7 percent of Hawaii’s GDP as well as 7 percent of all jobs in the state.

Waikīkī Beach. (Caleb Jones/AP)

There has been a growing awareness for years that a major flood event could bring the neighborhood to its knees. Already, king tides have overtopped Waikīkī’s seawalls and those along the Ala Wai, and forced water up through the neighborhood storm drains—not unlike what Miami Beach sees on a regular basis. Official estimates put the price tag of a 100-year storm in Waikīkī at $1.14 billion.

To protect against this threat—which is exacerbated by the fact that sea levels are expected to rise roughly three feet in coming decades—in 2001 the Army Corps and Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources initiated the Ala Wai Canal Flood Risk Management Project, which calls for flood walls along the length of the historic canal, six debris and detention basins in the upper reaches of tributary streams (which would feature earthen dams up to 24 feet tall and nearly as wide as a football field), a series of pump stations, and further dredging.

The plan has met fierce opposition, however, both from homeowners whose properties would be affected by the detention basins and from Hawaiian activists and environmental groups.

Earlier this year, the boards of six Honolulu neighborhoods affected by the plan passed resolutions requesting a temporary halt to the project. In September, the grassroots organization Protect Our Ala Wai Watershed sued the state, city, and county and requested a temporary injunction. A judge granted the injunction the following month, prohibiting the state from funding the project until the delivery of an environmental impact statement in compliance with state law. (Of the total project cost, about $125 million would come from the State of Hawaii and the other $220 million from the federal government.)

Opponents’ concerns include the ecological impact of the proposed detention basins and the visual impact of flood walls along the canal, which currently is lined with running and biking paths and used daily by canoe clubs. They say that the Army Corps’ plan is outdated, based on 20th-century ideas about flood protection and lacking the type of adaptive capacity that more natural solutions offer.

“This is a failure of leadership from the highest levels,” said Simon Bussiere, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. Although the proposed measures might work for a time, he said, such monumental flood-control infrastructure is “plagued with inherent instability and failure.”

Bussiere said the project’s $345 million budget would be better spent on a more systematic and ecologically informed watershed-restoration effort that could protect Waikīkī and the surrounding communities from future floods but that also would provide other benefits, ranging from increased open space to enhanced water quality (a major issue in the Ala Wai, due to the amount of runoff it receives).

Early plans by the Army Corps included ecosystem restoration and water quality as stated goals of the project, but these aspects were later removed.

“That’s what got us concerned,” said Kenneth Kaneshiro, the director of the Center for Conservation Research & Training at UH-Mānoa and a cofounder of the Hawaiʻi Exemplary State Foundation, whose mission is to combine traditional Hawaiian knowledge with modern technology to help make communities more resilient. “A watershed is a living organism. If you’re putting six detention dams throughout the watershed, you’re disrupting the natural ecosystem.”

If the Army Corps proceeds as planned, there is likely to be a showdown. Protests against the scheduled construction of a $1.4 billion observatory known as the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) on Maunakea, Hawai‘i’s tallest—and most sacred—peak, grew into a movement earlier this year. Given the cultural importance of water in Hawaiʻi, it is likely that any attempt to build massive, concrete-lined structures in the upper reaches of one of Oahu’s most vital watersheds will be met with resistance.

“If they start, it’s going to be another TMT,” Kaneshiro said.

Stewardship vs. walls

Imai Winchester is a teacher at Halau Ku Mana, a Native Hawaiian charter school located along one of the Ala Wai’s tributaries, and is among those who oppose the Army Corps plan. “What scares me is the blind faith that the Army Corps has the best proposal for us, and that the potential of choking out our remaining streams in Honolulu is worth $350 million. To me, it’s very short-sighted,” he said.

One of the issues is that the project will impede ongoing, community-driven stewardship efforts. “You need hands in the stream to keep it clean,” he said. “A wall is not going to do it. A wall is disconnecting. If you reflect back on what happened to Hawai‘i over the last century, it’s been [characterized by] the severance of relationship.”

Halau Ku Mana helps organize an annual stream cleanup near its campus, an area targeted for a detention basin. The canal project would destroy at least 1,000 feet of natural stream channel and permanently alter the character of the entire valley. And yet Halau Ku Mana was not consulted during the development of the Army Corps’ plans, Winchester said. He recalled discovering a surveyor in the stream in the middle of a school day.

“Just to see people taking measurements on our site, without any consultation with us, without the courtesy of saying hello, really sparked our [indignation],” he said.

Jeff Herzog, the Army Corps’ project manager, said that consultation aside from soliciting comments on the draft environmental impact statement and notifying affected property owners is not required by federal law. But he admitted that communication to the public has been poorly handled: “It’s unfortunate that in 2015 the rendering that we put out for a flood wall along the Ala Wai Canal was a blank concrete wall.”

Bringing back the ahupuaʻa system

Several of those opposed to the Army Corps plan have offered alternative visions. Perhaps the most compelling is the Ala Wai Centennial, an ambitious 100-year plan for the Ala Wai watershed that is part memorial, part exhibition, and part environmental-justice initiative. It was created by Sean Connelly, a Pacific Islander American artist and designer who serves on the board of Protect Our Ala Wai Watershed.

Before the canal was built, the Waikiki area was a sprawling wetland. Hawaiians cultivated taro and built fishponds, and later, farmers grew rice in irrigated paddies. (Sean Connelly)
The building of the canal in the 1920s disrupted the natural hydrology and the traditional ahupuaʻa land system, which designer Sean Connelly hopes to recover through his Ala Wai Centennial project. (Sean Connelly)

Connelly’s vision includes physical interventions, such as a lock system for the canal and commercial-scale lo’i (taro patches) that support agritourism. But more broadly, he sees the Ala Wai Centennial as a coordinated framework for the recovery of Hawaiʻi’s ahupuaʻa system.

Historically, land in Hawai‘i was divided into districts that extended from the top of the mountains to the shore, known as ahupuaʻa. Roughly following the natural contours of Hawai‘i’s watersheds, the ahupuaʻa system acknowledged the importance—and resilience—of Hawaii’s streams and wetlands. Ahupua’a recovery, in Connelly’s words, is “a spatial, intellectual, and responsive approach to community organizing, design, and engineering.”

Aligning with the 100-year anniversary of the Ala Wai (which was begun in 1921), the centennial would begin in 2021 and include public events, exhibitions, design projects, community organizing, and more. It would serve as both a commemoration of the Ala Wai’s historical and cultural significance and an opportunity to articulate a more equitable, ecologically informed future for the communities within the Ala Wai watershed, to be implemented over the next 100 years.

Connelly has presented his Centennial vision to nearly 1,200 students in Honolulu as well as to city, state, and federal officials. He currently is planning and fund-raising for an initial set of projects. Kaneshiro’s foundation, meanwhile, is close to securing a sum similar to that of the Army Corps appropriation to pursue related efforts, Kaneshiro said. Among the ideas floated by several entities are a series of linear parks along tributary streams to serve as natural flood-control measures—something Connelly has been advocating for since at least 2014.

“Every major city has had its civic triumph,” Connelly said. “Honolulu’s is going to be the Ala Wai Canal. It’s going to be the recovery of our ahupuaʻa system.”

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Why Chile’s Massive Protests Started With a Subway Fare Hike

It’s Wednesday afternoon and hundreds of thousands have taken over Plaza Italia, the heart of Santiago and epicenter of any public protest in the city. They carry signs that ask for major improvements in public health, pensions, and income inequality. Among them, 70-year-old Amelia Rivera lifts a sign criticizing the paltry pension money that Chilean seniors get.

For the last six days, Rivera has been traveling from San Bernardo, a district in the far south of the city, to protest alongside her family. She says she is there to criticize the inequalities and classism in Chile. Her daughter is a PhD candidate in education, and Amelia thinks she will never be able to get to a high-ranking job position because of her brown skin. She says that people in the poorer “barrios” don’t have a voice in Chilean society.

That is why, she says, many of the subway stations in the most vulnerable areas of the city are now in ashes.

“If they don’t listen to you, what’s next? To shit all over the place,” Rivera says. “People used anger against the subway because it was the only way of getting attention. They don’t listen only with words.”

It’s not clear who burned the stations of Santiago’s subway—known as Metro—or in what context this happened. President Sebastián Piñera accused groups with logistical skills of “a criminal organization,” but public opinion has been skeptical. What is clear is that last Friday, a series of attacks burned down 19 stations, which moved Piñera to declare a state of emergency and a night curfew in the biggest city.

This declaration hasn’t stopped the public demonstrations, which have been met in many cases with violence by the police and armed forces. Over eight days, massive protests across the country—mostly peaceful and spanning socioeconomic class—have been demanding changes in policy, and that the armed forces go back to their barracks. At the time of publication, the National Institute of Human Rights has already recorded 3,162 people detained, 997 wounded, and 19 people dead, 5 of them allegedly by actions of armed forces or police.

This all started after a 3.75 percent fare hike was announced for the public transit system. It was 30 Chilean pesos, less than 5 U.S. cents, but an amount that matters for low-income families who tend to spend between 13 and 28 percent of their budgets on transportation, depending how you calculate it.

Santiago’s Metro system is already one of the most expensive in Latin America, and had seen an increase in fares of almost 100 percent in 12 years. Some workers who start their journeys at dawn to cross the city weren’t pleased with a recent comment by Minister of Economy Juan Andrés Fontaine:“If you wake up earlier, you can have the benefit of the lower fare.”

Founded in 1975, Metro has been seen as a source of pride for many. Its clean trains and stations full of art have been a metaphor for Chile as the “good student” of Latin America, a country that has been able to increase its GDP more than 1,000 percent in 30 years, while many in the region struggle. And, although the subway has suffered from overcrowding since it was integrated into the rest of the transit system in 2007, its constant expansion has been applauded as one of the most important equity efforts in the city, adding extensions not only to the job centers in the business districts, but also to the low-income residential neighborhoods.

But Santiago’s subway expansion also unveiled one of the city’s most intrinsic characteristics and something quite evident for most santiaguinos: its economic segregation.

“We have very high-income groups living in one area of the city and the rest in other areas, like the periphery,” says Paola Jirón, the director of MOVYT, a Chilean inter-university mobility research center. On the subway, these people interact with one another: In one car, it would be typical to see upper-class business people, construction workers from the periphery, students from all across the city, and the recent immigrants from countries like Venezuela and Haiti.

People are able to access better jobs and services, but oftentimes also face long travel times in extremely crowded cars to get there. And what they see when reaching their destination is really different from the neighborhoods, schools, and streets where they live. “Through our mobility we weave together the inequalities that fragment our city,” Jirón says.

And so the fare hike came. On the day it was announced, students started the first “massive evasion,” calling people to jump the turnstiles as a way to protest the increase. For years, high levels of fare evasion—mainly  on buses—has been an obsession for the technocrats in charge of the public transit system in Santiago. Now, angry teenagers had transformed fare evasion into a form of protest. “Evading, not paying, another way of fighting!” was one of the chants of the students.

As the days went by, more people got involved in the protests. While the government refused to change its direction, hundreds of thousands of Chileans also participated in peaceful marches, where they expressed the complexity of public frustration, always centered around the issue of inequality. At the same time, riots and attacks began. According to the latest figures, the total number grew to 21 stations severely burned and around 79 damaged, in addition to several trains, buses, and some buildings, including around 200 supermarkets.

“The protests in Santiago were triggered by the rise of fares, but the whole manifestation is much more complex,” says Paola Jirón. “People became tired of living in an uneven society. We have people making a lot of money, but the majority are profiting very little from the Chilean success.”

For the geographer Juan Correa, who works in the housing non-profit Fundación Vivienda, the subway became a symbol. “People didn’t attack their schools, their medical centers, the daycare centers—all public institutions—but the subway, where they perceived that there was profit,” says Correa. “This was a moment of rage, of stating that this institution was public, but they make me pay and with a hike that is unjustified.”

As the protests escalated, Piñera backtracked and not only called off the fare hike, but also announced some economic measures aimed at reducing inequality. But the marches haven’t lost steam, as protesters have been unsatisfied with the scope of these reforms. On Friday, approximately 1.2 million people gathered once more in Plaza Italia, in what has been called the largest demonstration in the country’s history. On early Saturday, Piñera reacted to the march by lifting the curfew.

Protesters in Santiago on Friday, Oct. 25, 2019. (Rodrigo Abd/AP)

Metro has started reopening some stations and analyzing the damage. Although some lines are already working, the state company says that the Line 1 won’t be fully operative until March 2020. Experts have said that all the repairs might take up to a year.

In the meantime, the lower-income population of Santiago’s outskirts will suffer. “The subway is the spine of the transit system of the city and of our mobility as a whole,” says Correa. The two most damaged subway lines are in some of the most impoverished areas of Santiago. “They serve precisely La Florida and Puente Alto, two of the most populated districts of the city, that are of middle and lower income. This is going to affect the quality of life of people, increasing commuting times, stress, and overcrowding.”

Some of them have taken matters in their own hands, and started volunteer squads to clean the burned-down stations. “I think that, although the demands are fair, this wasn’t the way,” one volunteer told TV station T13 on Sunday.  He said that he was there because that station was, in a way, his life: He was born near it, he had played there as a kid, he had traveled in the subway for the first time in 1975, with his mother, on the day of the inauguration of Metro.

As the man spoke, fellow volunteers walking by with shovels and wheelbarrows accumulated piles of ash and debris, their clothes blackened. “I want my daughter tomorrow to be able to take the subway. But I also want for this to be a call for attention for the government. They have to wake up. It’s not just 30 pesos, it’s not just pensions, it’s a sum of things and people have said ‘no more’. Maybe with this the government will listen, but it’s a shame that this has been the way.”

For Correa, deeper issues need to be addressed. “We can’t delegate this social weight only on the subway,” he said as he marched during a protest, pots and pans ringing in the background. “Today we have a structural failure of the state system in so many other services, including health, education, and culture.”

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Why the Bay Area Is Having a Massive Power Outage

In an effort to avoid sparking deadly wildfires—and to protect itself from future liability—California utility company Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E) shut off power to much of the Bay Area on Wednesday afternoon. The cause: high winds that were forecast to rake the region in gusts of up to 70 mph on Thursday. To preemptively reduce the chance of a downed line sparking a blaze, an estimated 800,000 utility customers in 34 Northern California cities like Berkeley, San Jose, Chico, and parts of the Sierra Nevada foothills will have their electricity service cut off over the next few days.

The most urbanized parts of the region, like downtown San Francisco and parts of Oakland, should be mostly untouched, but the scope of the disruption is massive: 800,000 utility customers translates to about 2.4 million individuals who stand to be left in the dark. The first 500,000 customers—many concentrated in West Marin County near Muir Woods and Mount Tamalpais, the dry hills of Lake County, and wine-country counties like Napa and Sonoma—lost power on Wednesday.

(Map courtesy of Mercury News)

“We understand the effects this event will have on our customers and appreciate the public’s patience as we do what is necessary to keep our communities safe and reduce the risk of wildfire,” Michael Lewis, PG&E’s senior vice president of Electric Operations, said in a statement to the San Francisco Chronicle.

PG&E began the practice of preemptively shutting off its electricity grid during high-risk periods in 2018, after the utility’s fragile and poorly maintained power lines, surrounded by untrimmed trees, helped ignite the deadly Camp Fire in Paradise, California. More than 80 people were killed in the wildfire, and thousands of homes turned to ash.

Over the past year, four similar planned safety outages were held, says Mark Toney, executive director of the Utility Reform Network (TURN), a consumer advocacy group that has been critical of the PG&E shutdown. But those affected primarily Napa and Sonoma counties, and lasted only about 24 hours at a time. In 2013, San Diego Gas & Electric became the first California utility to cut power during dry conditions, according to the Wall Street Journal; its largest shut-off only affected about 20,800 people.

This Bay Area outage will be much longer: PG&E estimates some areas will be without electricity for up to five days. San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo told reporters he encouraged residents and businesses to prepare for up to seven. Even after the high winds dissipate, utility workers must inspect each power line, ensuring it isn’t broken or left on the ground, before turning it back on. (Gas service will not be affected, PG&E said.)

“The worst nightmare would be if you started a fire by turning on the power,” said Toney.

The historic safety shutdown is proceeding as PG&E is dealing with the largest utility bankruptcy in U.S. history. After the Paradise tragedy and other recent safety mishaps (in 2016, for example, a gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno killed eight people), the California Public Utilities Commission launched an investigation into PG&E’s liability last year, threatening to break the company up or have the public take it over. On the hook for an estimated $30 billion in wildfire damages, PG&E filed for bankruptcy in January. Late on Wednesday, amid the first night of blackouts, a judge stripped the company of exclusive control over its restructuring.

But in taking this unprecedented move to reduce the threat of a fire crisis, the embattled utility may be creating another, man-made one. Classes at many local universities and schools were canceled on Wednesday. Mothers are scrambling to save their breast milk. Wine shops are looking for ways to chill their stashes. Grocery stores are reporting shortages of supplies like batteries and water; fresh food could be left rotting on the shelves by the time the week is over.

Mobility is also being affected. Bay Area Rapid Transit trains are up and running, but with traffic signals out, vehicle travel is dicey. (PG&E tweeted that cars should be treating all traffic lights as four-way stops.) A blackout hit the Robin Williams Tunnel in Marin County on Wednesday afternoon, but traffic was still circulating through. Caltrans employees worked through the night to get the generators set up in Caldecott Tunnel, which connects hundreds of thousands of commuters into the East Bay, avoiding potentially crippling jams.

Residents who are disabled, or who depend on power to charge medical devices, refrigerate diabetes medication, and run oxygen machines, are most at risk in an outage like this, said Diana Hernandez, a Columbia University assistant professor who studies issues related to energy justice—how the vulnerable communities that shoulder the burden of producing energy face barriers to accessing it. While hospitals in the blackout zones have generators running, many outpatient clinics and urgent care facilities don’t.

“Ultimately, people have worse health outcomes” during a blackout, she said. “In the worst kind of situations, they may die.”

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