In a deal that state officials hope will be the first of more to come, the Coca-Cola Co. has agreed to contribute financially to a public project aimed at helping to protect a remote watershed area that feeds the aquifer that serves a majority of Oahu’s drinking water.
During a news conference in the forest above Pearl City on Tuesday, officials from the state and Coca-Cola announced the company’s $200,000 contribution to a fencing project that will create a protective barrier around 1,400 acres high in the Koolau Mountains.
The fence is intended to keep wild pigs from continuing to damage a key section of the Waiawa watershed, responsible for generating 365 million gallons of water each day for the Pearl Harbor aquifer, a main source of drinking water for communities across Oahu, officials said.
“Without a fence, these pigs will continue to degrade the quality of the native forest and diminish the water-holding capacity for the aquifer,” said Tracey Gotthardt, operations supervisor of the Ko‘olau Mountains Watershed Partnership, a 16-member public-private consortium formed in 1999.
The $200,000 grant will be matched by $100,000 from the Honolulu Board of Water Supply and $100,000 from the state watershed capital improvement projects fund, officials said.
All told, the 6.6-mile fence is expected to cost between $1.2 million and $1.4 million and take as long as three years to construct.
Suzanne Case, director of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, said she’s hoping to obtain the balance of the funding with help from the state Legislature. She said $15 million has been requested for watershed fencing over the next two years.
This project, she said, represents an important step toward achieving Gov. David Ige’s Sustainable Hawaii Initiative goal of permanently protecting 30 percent of Hawaii’s watersheds by the year 2030. The state, she said, is currently halfway to the goal with 15 percent, or 127,000 acres, protected.
“This is a big leap forward,” Case said on a ridge looking out on a vast green landscape topped by the towering Koolau peaks. “We need to go step by step and keep at it, keep at it, until we protect enough watershed.”
Case said she hopes the Coca-Cola commitment is the first of many more such agreements. She said the state is already in discussions with other companies in hopes of taking advantage of a growing trend by corporations seeking to give back to the land.
In Coke’s case, freshwater replenishment is necessary for beverage production, said Bruce Karas, vice president of environment and sustainability for Coca-Cola North America.
“In 2007 our CEO made a pledge to balance the amount of water in our products with projects we would do in nature to return the water to nature,” Karas said.
Today Coke is helping underwrite more than 100 water projects in Canada and the U.S. — from safe-water access and watershed protection to removing invasive plants and rehabilitating high-mountain meadows.
By 2015, the world’s largest beverage company replenished 50 billion gallons of water through 248 community water projects in 71 countries, according to the company.
This is Coke’s first effort in Hawaii — and it is unique.
“You can imagine … having to talk to my bosses and telling them we’re going to put in a pig fence. It’s very different,” Karas said. “But as we learned from this partnership, it’s a critically important step in this green infrastructure.”
He added: “Water is an extremely local issue. Water is a community issue, and we share that water with our communities. If the watershed is healthy, our business is healthy and the community is healthy.”
Watersheds work best when they’re healthy. Rain and mist drip from shrubs and trees into mosses and soils that act as sponges that hold and recharge the water reserves that seep into the underground aquifer.
Multilayered Hawaiian native forests have evolved to the most efficient collectors of drinking water. But these forests are under attack from animals that cause erosion and invasive plants that smother and dominate the natives. When a native forest is damaged, its capacity to soak in all the water available to it declines.
Maintaining the health of Hawaii’s forests is more important now than ever in the face of climate change and declining rainfall, officials said.
The Koolau Range is the main water source for the Pearl Harbor aquifer, which supplies more than 60 percent of Oahu’s municipal water.
Officials said some of the best Koolau watershed is found in the Waiawa forest encompassed by this project, an area comprising 1,000 acres of Kamehameha Schools land and 400 acres in the state’s Ewa Forest Reserve.
“This area is a vital recharge area, and it is one of the priority recharge areas for Oahu. Unfortunately, we’ve noticed the increasing presence of wild pigs and damage by wild pigs in the Waiawa area,” Gotthardt said.
“Wild pigs are amazing ecological engineers,” she said. “They root around in the ground, trampling native plants, eating native plants and causing erosion. When they eat invasive plants, they spread them around. They are also a disease vector.”
Such fencing is often controversial. Hunters don’t like the fact their hunting grounds will be cut off.
But Case said she doesn’t anticipate as much opposition because the targeted location is remote and difficult to get to — with the fence no closer than 7.5 miles from Pearl City.
“There are a lot of areas that are open to hunting in the lower areas that are much more accessible,” she said.
The first shipment of fencing materials has already been purchased and delivered, Gotthardt said. In the next few months, the shipment will be flown to the construction site on the mountain. If the rest of the funds come through, the project will be put out to bid.
“We are very excited that we are moving forward with this project,” she said. “The contribution from Coca-Cola helped to kick-start this.”