Course to focus on protecting coral reefs

After the worst coral bleaching event ever recorded in Hawaii last fall, environmental groups are rallying to bring more community awareness to help protect the reefs.

A new course being offered at the University of Hawaii Maui College aims to teach watershed stewardship and landscape design principles to shoreline property owners, primarily hotels and resorts, which can help reduce impacts to coral reef and nearshore ecosystems.

The five-week course, “Reef Friendly Shoreline Innovations,” is scheduled for Thursdays from 2 to 4:30 p.m., beginning April 23. The course is being offered by the Coral Reef Alliance and the Sustainable Living Institute of Maui.

“In this course, we’ll talk a lot about low-impact design, which focuses on plants and landscape designs to catch stormwater and prevent it from entering our oceans,” said Wes Crile, Hawaii field manager for the Coral Reef Alliance and one of the course instructors, in a news release.

Crile said that the course will be taught by himself; Liz Foote, Project S.E.A.-Link founder and executive director; and Duane Sparksman, engineering and landscaping manager at the Westin Maui Resort & Spa.

“This is the direction that, globally, we’re moving. Studies are showing, especially with the millennial generation, people are not content to just travel and lounge on a beach. They want to know about the effect that the places that they stay at are having on the environment and on the communities. They want to know this stuff, and a lot of studies are showing this is how they choose where they travel,” Crile said.

He added that the popular travel website TripAdvisor, for example, has added a GreenLeaders program to identify hotels that have met certain eco-friendly criteria. Travelocity has also added a green leaf tag to identify eco-friendly hotels.

Contrary to views that coastal development hurts ocean resources, Crile believes oceanfront resorts can be “the last line of defense” when it comes to mitigating soil runoff from areas farther mauka.

“Especially in West Maui, if you look up slope, you have a lot of degraded agriculture lands” that were formerly used as pineapple fields in the plantation days. “When it rains, there’s all kinds of stuff coming down the mountain – sediment, fertilizer residue – and this little belt of green along our shorelines can be a very effective last line of defense for all that stuff coming down.”

Creating the “little belt of green” could be as simple as installing rain gardens instead of flower beds on resort properties, Crile said.

A rain garden is a landscape design element that uses plants, soil and mulch to remove pollutants from the water and allow it to soak into the ground, instead of running off into the ocean.

The Westin has proposed installing a rain garden next to its shower area to mitigate the amount and quality of water that flows into the ocean, SLIM Executive Director Alex de Roode said. Rain gardens have been installed by community groups and volunteers at Wahikuli Wayside Park in Lahaina and Pohaku Park in Kahana, and de Roode said that he’s seen “more and more interest” among the beachfront resorts.

“I think everyone along the (Kaanapali) strip really is becoming more interested in sustainability,” said Sparksman, who has been exploring eco-friendly landscaping methods at the Westin for the last two years. “It’s really looking at the ocean as the attractor. That’s the jewel we live on and near, and we really gotta keep it alive so people can come back and enjoy it from now on. . . . It’s really about protecting what is there.”

Sparksman added that the Westin has been limiting the amount of fertilizer used for landscaping, installed a smart drip irrigation system that conserves water, started a Native Hawaiian plant greenhouse and is looking into the possibility of using recycled water from the Lahaina Wastewater Treatment plan for irrigation.

Maui Hotel & Lodging Association Executive Director Lisa Paulson said that, over the last two decades, most of the 43 resorts in the association have made adjustments to be more green and conserve water.

She said resorts like the Andaz Maui at Wailea Resort, which earned the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Silver certification, and the Hyatt Regency Maui Resort & Spa, which earned the LEED Silver EBOM certification, have been setting the pace not just for Maui but for hotels around the world.

“Our visitors are demanding it, a lot of the visitors will look at what different certifications a resort has,” Paulson said, adding that Maui tends to draw visitors seeking the more natural adventures like hiking and water sports.

Paulson said that the association has partnered with several environmental organizations, including the Coral Reef Alliance, to make needed adjustments to be better stewards of the coast, especially because much of their revenue depends on the health of the ocean.

“They’re willing to spend the extra money, and it’s an easy decision to make because they could see the revenue reward right away,” Paulson said.

While the course focuses on techniques for mostly oceanfront hotels, resorts and businesses, it is open to the public.

Representatives from Lanai’s Four Seasons resorts, Whalers Village and a West Maui condominium association have already enrolled in the course, said Melanie Stephens, SLIM education coordinator. The institute has reached out to several other oceanfront resorts.

This is the first time this course has been offered at the Maui college. Enrollment costs $219, or $110 with an exchange-traded fund discount. Tuition assistance may be available to eligible participants.

For more information, go to edventuremaui.com or contact Stephens at mvstephe@hawaii.edu.

* Eileen Chao can be reached at echao@mauinews.com.