Maui News

State’s First Wetlands Restoration Project on Kauaʻi Helps Mitigate Climate Change Impacts

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The state Department of Land and Natural Resources produced a video for the 24th Annual World Wetlands Day. Video Courtesy: DLNR

In the 1800s, before wetlands were drained for agricultural purposes, a person could paddle a canoe from Waimea town to Polihale on Kauaʻi during the wet season. 

Now, to help restore some of the lost wetlands, the State is expanding the Kawai‘ele Waterbird Sanctuary by 100 acres. The State’s first wetlands restoration on Kauaʻi will not enable a person to canoe cross-country, but it will provide additional habitat for native Hawaiian birds and help mitigate climate change impacts, according to a news release from the state Department and Land and Natural Resources (DLNR).

“If you can protect, restore and re-create wetland areas, you’ll end up with a big sponge,” Jason Vercelli, a wildlife biologist with the DLNR’s Division of Forestry and Wildlife said.

  • Native birds flock to the Kawai‘ele Waterbird Sanctuary, which is part of the state’s first wetlands restoration project on Kauaʻi. Photo Courtesy: DNLR
  • The state’s Department of Land and Natural Resources is expanding the Kawai‘ele Waterbird Sanctuary by 100 acres as part of a wetlands restoration project on Kauaʻi. Photo Courtesy: DNLR
  • A restoration project also is taking place at the private Makauwahi Cave Reserve, where wetland areas are planted with taro and banana as well as native plants. Photo Courtesy: DNLR
  • At the Kawai’ele Waterbird Sanctuary, four native waterbirds now inhabit the shallow ponds: the Hawaiian stilt, Hawaiian coot, the Hawaiian gallinule and the koloa duck. Photo Courtesy: DNLR

On Feb. 2, the 24th Annual World Wetlands Day, scientists and wetlands managers called attention to the wide-array of ecological services and help to humanity that are provided by these shallow, species-rich, environments.

“One of the things [wetlands] can do is to help purify our water,” said Helen Raine of Pacific Birds. “During major rain events like we see in Hawai‘i, a wetland can trap and allow pollutants and toxins to settle before they reach the ocean. In the same way they can help us control sediment and store flood water.”

Protecting and managing wetlands also can provide services people will need as the climate warms.


“Wetlands are also home to some of our endangered Hawaiian waterbirds, like the Koloa Maoli (Koloa duck),” Raine said. “Building flood resilience for people through natural infrastructure like wetlands will also help those birds”. 

Vercelli has worked to help the Kawai’ele Waterbird Sanctuary for more than a decade. The area was set aside in the mid-1990s. Four native waterbirds now inhabit the shallow ponds: the Hawaiian stilt, Hawaiian coot, Hawaiian gallinule and koloa duck.  

Kawai’ele is not a natural wetland, but it was created after sand dunes were excavated to allow water to fill in. Whether created by human hands or not, clearly wetlands are not just for the birds. They provide recreational and educational opportunities. In addition to the interpretive kiosks currently in place, it is hoped the wetland’s expansion will eventually see a resource center with laboratory activities for keiki. 


Across Kaua‘i, along the southern shoreline near Poipu, another wetland restoration is occuring on private land.  

At the Makauwahi Cave Reserve, wetland areas are planted with taro and banana as well as native plants and visitors can often spot koloa ducks resting along the moist banks. Hawaiian ducks were once abundant across the state. As the wetlands declined in Kauaʻi, so did bird populations.  

The Hawai‘i Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation Commission recently adopted a fictionalized koloa maoli (Koloa Iki) as a tool to increase learning about sea climate change resilience and adaptation.  

“The Koloa Maoli, living in wetland habitats — which absorb carbon; provide resilience to storm surges; and act as an indicator of saltwater intrusion — can help show us, in a fun way, where we need to take action to make Hawai‘i climate ready,” said Anu Hittle, the commission’s coordinator


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