The Kalihi Stream Revival

A Kalihi nonprofit heals a stream to connect a community and develop a network of stewards.

Photos: Monte Costa

It’s a bright Thursday morning at the Kalihi Stream, and a teddy bear, sandwiched between two rocks, is getting a suntan. A few feet away, a tattered pillow sticks to a tree branch, and there’s enough plastic waste along the stream bank—cups,  wrappers and more—to fill a small sedan. “Most of the dumping happens at drive-by bridges,” says Barbara Natale, executive director of the nonprofit organization Kalihi Ahupuaa Ulu Pono Ahahui (KAUPA). “People even drop entire bags of garbage.”

Look beyond the trash, however, and the stream is an unexpected gem in the midst of an urban setting. Beautiful and rare, this is one of the last remaining streams in Honolulu with a continuous natural stream bed; meaning, if you travel upstream or downstream, you’ll find water flowing over earth, not concrete.

Formed in 2005, KAUPA’s mission is to reestablish the connection people once had with the ahupuaa. The group organizes regular, hands-on activities at the stream that involve the larger community. “At one time the stream was the lifeblood of the ahupuaa. It was the place where you would fish, you would grow taro, and now, no one really congregates there anymore,” says Natale, who is also a resident of Kalihi Valley.

Every second Saturday of the month, volunteers participate in a stream cleanup during which they collect an average of 100 pounds of trash—most of it plastic, but car parts, bikes and carpets are not uncommon. They also nurture the stream bank, pulling out invasive plants and planting Native Hawaiian and Polynesian-introduced species that are edible, medicinal or useful, such as wauke, a plant used for making kapa.

The work takes place in a section that is highly visible to the public. On one side sits the Kalihi Waena Elementary School playground; on the other side, an apartment building directly overlooking the stream. A walking bridge that’s used as a thoroughfare by hundreds of people every day connects the two areas; the natural setting has the potential to function as a morale booster, instilling a sense of community pride among residents.

KAUPA also has an ongoing, twice-weekly program with 100 fourth graders at the adjacent school. In the classroom, kids use a diatomaceous model to learn how pollution affects the stream system. They take water-quality measurements and go on field trips to the back of the valley, as well as to Keehi Lagoon, which exposes them to the entire ahupuaa.

“To me, the definition of a modern, functioning ahupuaa, is where people come, they talk to each other, they help each other, and in turn, they become more aware of what’s happening in their neighborhood,” says Natale. “The gathering may start out with a focus on the environment, but then it branches out and creates a stronger community.”

For more information, to donate or to volunteer with KAUPA, visit

Stream of Art

The blue walls that line Kalihi Stream are regularly covered in graffiti. To change that, KAUPA asked community members what they’d like to see on the walls instead. With the help of Solomon Enos, Meleanna Meyer, Kahi Ching and John “Prime” Hina, of 808 Urban, a 250-foot mural has been developed that includes sketches of native species, portraits of people living in Kalihi, and legends of Papa and Wākea. A group of students age 15 and older participated in KAUPA’s art workshops, and will help paint the mural as well as contribute drawings. The mural is expected to be up by early winter. “This is more than just putting paint on the wall,” says Natale, “it’s hearing the community’s voice.”