“By far the greatest and most admirable form of wisdom is that needed to plan and beautify cities and human communities.”
In 1917, the deposed former monarch of the Hawaiian Islands, Queen Liliʻuokalani, died and was buried at the Royal Mausoleum of Hawai’i. Not long after, the construction of what would become the Ala Wai Canal, a concept developed by Lucius Pinkham, enabled the development of Waikīkī as a tourist center, and are considered to be one of the most enduring legacies of Pinkham’s tenure as the territorial governor of Hawai’i.
The Ala Wai Canal is a man-made waterway in Honolulu, Hawai’i. It was created for the purpose of draining the rice paddies and swamps which would eventually become the tourist resort area of Waikiki.
Located on the southern boundary of Honolulu, it serves as a physical perimeter between the business and resort components of the Pacific island of Oahu.
The canal runs northwest from Kapahulu Avenue, along the length of the Ala Wai Golf course, parallel to the length of Waikīkī. It then turns southwest to empty into the Ala Wai boat harbor and then into the Pacific Ocean. Bridges cross the canal at McCully Street, Kalākaua Avenue, and Ala Moana Boulevard.
After spending time in and around Waikiki it’s hard to believe that before the canal existed, Waikiki consisted of wetlands which were fed by streams running from the Makiki, Palolo, and Manoa valleys, which found their way to the ocean. In the early 1900s, Lucius Pinkham developed the idea of constructing a drainage canal to drain the wetlands.
Construction of the canal began in 1921 and the contractor for the project was Hawaiian Dredging, founded by Walter F. Dillingham. It was completed in 1928.
The original design called for the canal’s two-mile long waterway to have two outlets, one on either end. This would allow sedimentation to be flushed into the ocean. However, engineers decided not to build the eastern outlet when they determined that the contamination from that end would end up on the beaches of Waikiki.
For some reason these engineers ignored the fact that keeping one end closed they were creating a tidal slough. The definition of a slough is a wetland, usually a swamp or shallow lake, often a backwater to a larger body of water. Water tends to be stagnant or may flow slowly on a seasonal basis.
When the city was permitting for new buildings in Waikiki they required builders to build above sea level. In true entrepreneur spirit, Dillingham sold the dirt he had dredged to create the canal so they could build up the newly created land. The canal is still routinely dredged, most recently in 2003.
A concern raised by federal flood experts is that heavy rain could cause the canal to overflow, potentially inundating the area from Diamond Head to Ala Moana and Moiliili with up to five feet of water.
Another major issue is the pollution in the canal brought about by urbanization. In the 1020’s there were no environmental concerns or laws and it was unknown how many residents would inhabit Waikiki. Not accounting for tourists, the 3.4 square mile area known as Waikiki supports a population of about 35,000 people, roughly 10,300 per square mile.
In March 2006, heavy thunderstorms and rains overwhelmed the sewers around the Ala Wai Canal, causing a pressurized sewage line to break. Days later, and after the spill was made public, then Mayor Mufi Hannemann decided to divert nearly 48 million US gallons of untreated sewage into the Ala Wai Canal in an attempt to avoid having the sewage back up into hotels and residences. This diversion caused partial overflowing of the canal in some areas, and the sewage then tainted Waikiki and nearby beaches. The beaches near the Ala Wai Canal, including beaches in the Waikiki and Ala Moana districts were closed temporarily due to health concerns. In the weeks after the incident, beaches were eventually reopened, but it took several months before the Ala Wai Canal was determined to be safe and free from major health concerns.
Despite the canal repeatedly falling short of meeting safety standards for paddling and recreational use, there has been no move to prohibit such use. Hundreds of paddlers and boaters make it one of the most used inland waterways in the state.
People don’t swim in the Ala Wai anymore. Contact with its murky water—filled with bacteria, heavy metals, pesticides, and who knows what else—can be hazardous to your health. As the dedicated canoe paddlers who practice on the Ala Wai are well aware, even light splashes can cause rashes, boils and gastro-intestinal troubles.
As scary as the Ala Wai’s waters are, life thrives there. Sure, the canal is a massive drainage ditch for a swath of city stretching from Punchbowl to Diamond Head. But it’s also a tropical tidal estuary, where freshwater and seawater meet, producing a fruitful habitat for a wide variety of pollution-resistant fish, crustaceans and other creatures.
As of 2018 there have been a number of plans devised to clean up this potential amenity to the urban area of Honolulu. Many mainland cities, such as: San Antonio, TX and Reno, NV have turned waterways into major tourist and economic destinations that enhance urban life. The Ala Wai canal has the potential, it just needs to become a priority for Hawai’i.
Watch this video from Honolulu Civil Beat
Honolulu City Beat