By COLIN M. STEWART
Tribune-Herald staff writer
Hawaii Island is expected to see at least some relief this winter from the ongoing drought conditions that have produced lower than average rainfall since at least 2008.
However, a full recovery may not be a possibility due to the “intensity and longevity” of the existing drought conditions, according to Kevin Kodama, senior hydrologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Honolulu.
“Unfortunately, that’s the prognosis, as of now,” he said Monday afternoon in a phone interview. “The drought has been so severe and so long, especially for the leeward areas of the Big Island, that’s it’s going to take a sustained effort — sustained, lasting rains.”
Kodama explained that several sustained periods of rainfall could help to replenish soil moisture, aiding farmers and ranchers.
“The big thing is it can’t just be one big rain event. And we don’t want it too big, that just creates flooding with runoff. You want a good soaking rainfall, and then have it repeat,” he said.
During the last dry season, which ran May through September, many areas statewide saw below average rainfall totals, especially on their leeward sides, with droughts in the leeward areas redeveloping or worsening in all four counties, according to a NOAA news release issued Monday.
Meanwhile, most windward areas, including East Hawaii, saw below average rainfall totals, but were adequate enough to meet most needs. Rainfall frequency was near normal, but daily totals remained below average.
“This has been a characteristic of summer rainfall for several years,” the release stated.
Leeward areas of the Big Island saw extreme drought conditions affecting agriculture expand from the South Kohala district and Pohakuloa into the North Kona area. Extreme drought also developed in the southern portion of Ka‘u, the release said.
During the new wet season, which began this month and will continue through April 2013, drought recovery is expected for areas on Kauai and Oahu, but recovery is less certain for Maui and the Big Isle, Kodama said.
An El Nino weather pattern, which is linked with drier conditions, has been developing since the spring, but appears to have slowed recently, he added. That means the potential for heavy rains will increase in late winter through early spring.
Kodama reminded residents, especially those in flood-prone parts of the island, to not become complacent due to recent drought conditions and prepare for the worst.
“Be prepared for flooding-type situations, because this is the peak time for them. The type of rains we get here can be so intense and overwhelm everything,” he said.
Harry M. “Pono” von Holt, owner of Ponoholo Ranch, said Monday he wouldn’t mind a good dousing this season. His 11,000-acre cattle ranch in Kohala has seen its herds thinned considerably due to drought.
“This is the eighth consecutive year of below average rainfall on 99 percent of the ranch,” von Holt said. “And the dry season just makes the overall dry pattern even worse. … We’ve reduced the herd by somewhere around 30 or 40 percent over the last seven or eight years.”
Von Holt explained that ranchers often try to feed their way out of a drought, relying on stored foods like hay to keep their cattle growing, since foraging grasses aren’t available due to the drought. But in Hawaii, he said, that simply isn’t economical, so ranchers must balance out their herds by selling animals. That has helped to bring money in during the drought, but will mean more costs in the future when precipitation picks up and he needs to restock.
“Presently, financially, we’ve been fine, but the long-term effects are challenging,” he said. “If we stay in the drought much longer, we could hit the wall.”
Von Holt said that even if rain does pick up, the impact won’t be apparent for at least two years.
“In our business, you have a two-year lead time. It takes nine months of gestation (for a calf), and another year and a half to two years to get that animal to market,” he said.
A fourth-generation Hawaii Island rancher, von Holt said that his family had seen tough times in the past, including a bad drought over a stretch of four years, from 1931-1935. But, he said, this drought appears to be much longer lasting.
“We’ve never had one as sustained as this, looking at modern records,” he said. “I’m an optimist. I’m hoping this is a once in a lifetime type deal, and my family won’t see another one like it.”
Email Colin M. Stewart at firstname.lastname@example.org.