WAIANAE, Hawaii - Seven public and private organizations affirmed their commitment to protecting Oahu\'s primary source of fresh water, April 22, at Kaala Farm, here.

Under a light "blessing" of rain, U.S. Army Garrison-Hawaii joined the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources, Honolulu Board of Water Supply, Gill-Olson Joint Venture, Kaala Farm, MAO Organic Farms, and Navy Region, Hawaii, in the farm's Hale Naauao, or "house of learning," to sign a memorandum of understanding formalizing the Waianae Mountains Watershed Partnership.

This partnership is the tenth of its kind in the state of Hawaii dedicated to protecting Hawaii's watersheds - areas of land that catch and collect Hawaii's most precious resource: water.

In Hawaiian culture, wai, or water, is considered a gift from the gods. Ancient Hawaiians valued the water flowing through their ahupuaa, or the division of land in which they lived. They took only the water necessary to survive and developed sustainable practices focused on conserving resources to ensure survival.

As residents of one of the most isolated places in the world - more than 2,000 miles from the nearest neighbor - early Hawaiians were completely dependent on the islands' resources for survival.

Following in the footsteps of these island ancestors, members of the Waianae Mountains Watershed Partnership are taking a holistic approach to protecting and preserving the Waianae watershed from mauka to makai, from the mountains to the sea.

Urban growth and other watershed impacts, such as the loss of native forests and the diversion of water, have resulted in increased water pollution, soil erosion and runoff, according to Yumi Miyata, Waianae Mountains Watershed Partnership coordinator.

"This alliance will bring people together to responsibly manage watershed areas, native species, their habitat, and historical, cultural and socioeconomic resources for all who benefit from the continued health of the Waianae Mountains ahupuaa," Miyata said, in her remarks at the MOU signing.

USAG-HI's involvement in the partnership stems from the Army being one of the major land managers of endangered species in the Waianae Mountains, as well as its work protecting the native ecosystems of these species.

"Getting involved is good stewardship," said Michelle Mansker, Natural Resources section chief, USAG-HI. "On a basic level, we are responsible for managing our natural resources, and in Hawaii, they are so rare and so threatened by so many things that partnering is the best way for us to do that stewardship."

The Army has been a member of the Koolau Mountains Watershed Partnership since 1999, and this new Waianae partnership is exciting for Mansker and other partners because it brings something different to the table - the community.

"(The Waianae Mountains Watershed Partnership) is a little different from the other (watershed partnerships) because it involves so many members of the community," said Laura Thielen, chairperson, Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources. "It has a breadth and a depth and a community involvement that's really much richer than any of the other watershed partnerships."

Uilani Arasato, a Waianae High School student, was one of the community members involved in the partnership MOU signing held at Kaala Farm. Arasato worked at the farm over the summer, under the guidance of farm manager Butch Detroye. She helped restore the loi kalo, or wet taro fields, of her ancestors.

"Uncle Butch actually told us one time that 'you look at your fingers and you don't see dirt under them; you can't call it your land, or you can't call it your work if you haven't actually gotten into it or worked with it,'" Arasato said. "When we started working here, he told us now this is our aina, also. Now we need to help take responsibility to care for it.

"(Waianae) is not just any place," Arasato added. "This is our sacred place, where we get our food ... our water ... that's why today was so awesome to see, especially hearing Uncle Butch and all of them talk to us over the summer about the water and how we need to help get it back to us.

"It's really awesome to see everything out here going on, the papers being signed, and the water now being able to run down to our streams," Arasato continued.

Kaala Farm's loi kalo, the backdrop for the MOU signing, served as a reminder of the importance of water and watersheds. Built by Hawaiian ancestors and restored by the community today, these sustainable ponds grow the life-giving food kalo, or taro. Stream water irrigates the loi kalo, flowing through each pond before eventually returning to the stream.

"You need places (like this) that people can come together as a family," said Eric Enos, co-founder and executive director of Kaala Farm. "Because when you can't do that, that's when ... you have all the things that aren't working right ... this is a chance for us to work with groups, organizations that don't normally sit and 'he alo a he alo' (talk face-to-face).

"It's really important," Enos continued, "because a lot of time we work through the media or the lawyers or something like that, when all it takes is 'he alo a he alo.'

"These issues are all our issues," Enos added. "Healthy watershed, healthy people, healthy communities."

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