Wailua Reservoir project faces scrutiny

A proposed Wailua education and recreation center met with strong opposition from community members during an informal meeting Saturday at the Kapa‘a Library.

Hawaii Nature Center Executive Director Gregory Dunn flew in from O‘ahu to discuss the project that would eventually encompass roughly 10 acres northeast of Wailua Reservoir, turning it into a recreation and education center for community members and school children.

The project has been in the works for almost 10 years, since the Lihu‘e Plantation turned the reservoir back to the state. Five years ago, the government requested help from private entities to develop the site as a fresh-water fishing and nature education center.

“The Hawaii Nature Center was the successful applicant,” Dunn said.

Gov. Linda Lingle has already approved $500,000 for the nonprofit, which would go toward the development of the site.

“The primary goal of this facility is to bring in elementary and intermediate school children up to the site, so they can do field studies and environmental education,” Dunn said.

However, the majority of the dozen community members who showed up at the monthly Wailua-Kapa‘a Neighborhood Association meeting voiced frustration over the project, which would include building a 3,000-square-foot structure on the land adjacent to the reservoir.

“We don’t need to take man-made structures up into natural habitat,” association member Ken Taylor said.

The Hawaii Nature Center operates a facility in Makiki Valley, O‘ahu, built to meet sustainable certifications, Dunn said. The facility was built with recyclable materials and uses a green-waste waste water system licensed by the Public Health Department.

“We would envision those kinds of components in Wailua as well,” Dunn said.

The Wailua Reservoir was originally built to store water for now-defunct sugar cane plantations. Biologists Don Heacock and Carl Berg opposed the project, saying the water that feeds into the reservoir should be redirected back to Wailua River.

“We should be restoring the native environmental system,” Berg said.

Asked if Hawaii Nature Center had plans to introduce blue gill, an alien fish species, to the reservoir, Dunn said that is the jurisdiction of the Department of Land and Natural Resources — and according to a survey done a couple of years ago, blue gill is already there, as well as other invasive species, including peacock bass, large-mouth bass, tilapia and catfish.

Teacher Sandy Takaezu offered her support for the project, saying it will offer educational opportunities.

“You can never have enough cultural education,” she said.

Neighborhood association member Ray Holmes said he, too, supports the project as a way to educate children about the environment, as well as develop an interest and respect for it.

“Kapa‘a High School kids want an outdoor project,” Dunn said. “Teachers say those programs help the children.”

But Berg was not satisfied that another nature-education is necessary, noting that there are currently five on-island. He proposed that the $500,000 funding already approved for the center be used to rent buses to take the children on field trips to those sites.

“These kids are not deprived,” Berg said.

Another issue for attendees was the presence of alien fauna and flora at the site, and whether it has educational value for students.

“Our students are only learning about native Hawaiian plants,” Professor Andy Bushnell said. “They can’t recognize a Java plum.”

In addition to construction costs, which could add to $4,5 million, the proposed nature center would cost anywhere between $250,000 and $300,000 annually, including payroll costs, insurance and maintenance. Most of the funding is expected to come from off-island.

An Environmental Assessment will be prepared, and meetings will be held to gather community input.

For more information, visit www.hawaiinaturecenter.org

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