WAIANAE, OAHU (HawaiiNewsNow) - The sun is rising over the Waianae Mountains as more than a dozen conservationists, biologists and volunteers prepare to make their way through the bog and tricky terrain of the Ka'ala Natural Area Reserve. They have one ultimate goal—reintroducing Native plants to our rainforests, and in turn preserving our fresh water.
"We actually have dwindled our water supply in O'ahu. In the last hundred years, we've lost half of the main water supply," said Emma Yuen, a Natural Area Reserve system planner for the Department of Land and Natural Resources.
The group is heading to the highest point on O'ahu—more than 4,000 feet above sea level—to scale down the steep ridges and find a place to plant one of Hawaii's most endangered species, the kamakahala.
"The Native Hawaiian forest captures water better than any other forest in Hawai'i," said Marigold Zoll, the Native Ecosystems Protection and Management O'ahu branch manager for DLNR. "Whereas a non-native forest the rain goes right through it and washes the soil away—the Native Hawaiian forest captures that water and slows it down and it's able to percolate into the aquifer and provide us with fresh water."
Planting native species like the kamakahala is a very important part of the restoration process, but finding a micro-habitat where plants like these can survive is not an easy task. Ka'ala is the only place kamakahala is found in the Hawaiian Islands.
"I think the kamakahala is just a representative example of the plight of the Native Hawaiian plants in general," said Kapua Kawelo, a biologist with Army's Natural Resource Program on O'ahu. "All these beautiful trees and mosses that are the sponge of our Hawaiian rainforest that provide us with our fresh water—are all working in conjunction with each other. So if one piece is removed from that, than its sort of just a slippery slope and other things are likely to follow."
Experts say protecting mauka forest areas is the most cost effective and efficient way to absorb rainwater and replenish groundwater.
"The less water we have the more expensive it is to harvest it, to pump it, to supply it to everyone. So as the water level goes down it make water less affordable for everyone," said Yuen. "Without it we have no agriculture, we have no economy, we have no tourism. We can't live here without water, it affects us all."
Forests are considered so crucial to our water supply – it's recognized in an ancient Hawaiian proverb "Hahai no ka ua i ka ululâ`au," meaning: "the rain follows the forest".
"We want to make sure that for the future generations there is plenty of water because that is the source of all life and we're out here in the middle of the Pacific Ocean – we can't just move on to other land, we've got to take really good care of what we've got," said Lisa Ferentinos, a DLNR Natural Area Reserve watershed partnerships program planner.
There used to be less than 75 kamakahala in the wild, but Friday's efforts have tripled their population-- 150 of them were planted in the Waianae Mountains. The outplanting is a collaborative effort with the Oahu Army Natural Resource Program (OARNP) Board of Water Supply, Waianae Mountains Watershed Partnership, Plant Extinction Prevention Program, and the Natural Area Reserves System (NARS, DLNR).