On February 5, a Monday, in Palikir, Pohnpei, I shot over a hundred photos of the Kiriedleng River, that is, I took pictures of what used to be the Kiriedleng, a name that literally means "murky river from heaven". Indeed, the Kiriedleng is spring fed but the spring isn't lately feeding the river the way that it did just a few weeks ago.
Kiriedleng is dried up now and the cracked and steaming gully that once contained it was strewn on that day with aquatic carcasses in the early stages of rot. The carcasses were commingled with trash that had been discarded in the river over the years. The people who threw it there probably thought it would never be seen again. It seems to be a common belief in the watersheds of Pohnpei, where all manner of trash and excrement is thrown, sometimes without a second thought.
Twenty feet east of the circumferential road where vehicles fly by two or three a minute, an eel, later rescued by students from Palikir Elementary School, squirmed in a quarter inch puddle desperately trying to breathe the hot water. Twenty or more of his kin within just a few feet had not been as lucky. They were long gone and twisted. Fresh water shrimp, colored black in life lay in the sun cooked red; ready for eating except for the ecstatic, buzzing squadrons of hairy black and green flies that had been feeding and laying their eggs in and on them for a day or two. The Conservation Society of Pohnpei had a Tilapia (an invasive non-indigenous species of fish) eradication program slated for the Kiriedleng. They no longer have to bother with that river. All they have to do now is find out where the children of the village moved the live ones they "rescued". The kids must certainly have thought they were doing a good thing.
For people who don't live in Pohnpei it is difficult to imagine that when the annual rainfall falls as low as 10 feet 8 inches as it did in 1998 a drought is underway here. The monthly average of rainfall in the last ten years has been 15 inches but during El Nino conditions that amount drops, sometimes significantly. There were only 4.9 inches of rain in January of this year.
Mark Lander of the Water and Environmental Research Institute (WERI) of the University of Guam said that at the top of the watershed in the Nana Laud crater where they have one of their hydrometers (rain gauges), the rainfall average has been hovering between the 27 and 29 foot mark for the last three years, a figure that he said, quite possibly qualifies Pohnpei as one of the top 10 rainiest places in the world.
The annual rainfall for the last 10 years averaged 15 feet at the hydrometers that the National Weather Service maintains in Palikir and Kolonia at the bottom of the watershed where most of us live. There's a high standard deviation on that figure so the total rainfall recorded there in the last decade went as high as just over 17 feet.
The island is currently experiencing what the FSM Weather Service terms a moderate El Nino. Caroline Adams who maintains the records for rainfall in the FSM said that the El Nino may be at its peak and might possibly taper off from this point forward; good news for the forests that have burned during this time.
Pohnpei needs just about all the rain it can get. According to the Pohnpei Forestry Department every coconut on every tree in Pohnpei requires 25 gallons of water per day in order to thrive. Taro fields must be constantly wet in order to stay healthy. It seems that everything that grows in Pohnpei requires a great deal of rain. The effects of an El Nino, even a moderate one can be devastating for the island, especially when those effects are coupled with man made drains on the watershed like highland deforestation, or, if Palikir residents have it right, man made wells.
Forty-three year-old Patrick Alex was born and raised in Palikir. He used the river nearly every day of his life. He said that in his memory the river was never dry, not even in the drought of '97- '98. When he called the Environmental Protection Agency about his concern, he said that he was told that the river probably dried up due to El Nino conditions.
Alex, standing on the bridge above the Kiriedleng was colorful in his response. "P.U.C. made its own El Nino right there!" He pointed angrily at the well a few hundred feet away. The well was recently drilled on behalf of the Pohnpei Utilities Corporation by the U.S. Navy's "Seabees". "It's a steel El Nino!"
Clayton Santos of the EPA, who is in charge of the evaluation said he never told anyone that El Nino caused the dry up of the Kiriedleng. He is writing a report but could not comment on any of the evaluations he had made so far until Etiny Hadley, his boss, cleared him to do so.
Burdick Roby, partner with his wife, Benida at the BurBen store in Palikir, noticed some weeks ago that the river was receding and began marking its level on the concrete support of the bridge. He made his mark with a rock in the morning and again in the evening. The first mark that Roby made is several feet short of the stain left by the average water level on the bridge support. The scratched marks he made are still there. They show that the level of the river fell an average of 6 inches at night and two inches during the day when the sun was at its apex.
A report issued by P.U.C. said that the well was put into service on January 15, the month that had the lowest rainfall during the current El Nino. The well is pumping 175 gallons per minute, 252,000 gallons per day, from the ground 150 feet below.
Two hundred meters away from the Kiriedleng on the road to Pais, a small stream babbled energetically over the stones. 300 meters further down the road a river flowed next to the Barnabas Catholic Church. Young children jumped off the bridge and swam in the river wearing only the special unencumbered smiles that children of all races have when they are happy in the way that only they seem to be able to be.
On the other side of the bridge a short way off, three women sat on stones in the river laughing and talking while small piles of laundry waited patiently in no hurry to be washed. There was enough water for both activities. Roby said that in 1998 when he was still in High School, both of those water sources dried up completely. He said that the residents of Pais came to the Kiriedleng River to bathe and to wash their clothes when they couldn't do either in their own dried up rivers. Like Alex, he said that the river had never been dry in his life.
Merins Hadley- Race said the same thing. She reported the situation to the Office of Historic Preservation in Pohnpei because of the river's historic significance. Robert Hadley, Assistant General Manager for Water/ Sewer at PUC, when he was told that several people said the well had not been dry in their lifetimes said, "I don't believe that."
On February 1st, Hadley and another employee of PUC visited the Kiriedleng to do an assessment of the surface water at the bridge. In the report of that visit he said that on the east side of the bridge which he called the "Inland site (sic)", there was water at a "stationary level" though he did not say what the level was or how long it took to determine that the water level was stationary. On the other side of the bridge which is slightly higher, there was no water. He said that 100 feet further west there was "no sign of water in among the taro patch and the trees in the stream patch."
According to locals, the taro patch is owned by a family that uses it to make their living and to eat. In PUC's report Hadley said that during the drilling process they encountered five "bubbles", reservoirs of water encased in rock. Though the well was drilled to a depth of 250 feet, the pump is currently pumping at a depth of between 150 and 180 feet where Hadley said in an interview, harmful bacteria cannot survive. Concrete and steel casings were placed around the well's shaft to avoid draining water from the "bubbles" above the one from which they are pumping water.
The PUC report said that the hydrogeologist (ground water specialist) who identified the site gave "no indication of an affect to the surface water." The report did not indicate whether or not the expert was ever asked if it might. "Even the experts are never 100% sure of its (the well's) environmental impact", the report said.
"This is considered to be one of the best well(s) on Pohnpei", Hadley said in the report. The well was put into service because "the public are not getting their water daily demand satisfied. This is due mainly to wastage of water."
Local residents say that many of them have had new service provided to them since the well was drilled including one of them that called PUC about the river's apparent demise. The data supporting the internal report written by Hadley has not yet been made available to The Kaselehlie Press despite repeated attempts.
Clayton Santos who has been working on a report of the situation is waiting for the data as well so that he can complete his report for the EPA. Apparently the only thing keeping the supporting data from being released is the lack of toner for a copy machine at PUC. "It's too small for me to think about", Hadley said when asked when copies might be available.