East Maui Sees Largest Stream Restoration in Hawai'i History

Jun 25, 2018

East Maui Irrigation Ditch
Credit Will Scullin / Flickr

A nearly two decades-long battle for water in Maui has come to an end. The state Water Commission decided last week to end the century-old diversions and restore stream flow in East Maui. HPR Reporter Ku’uwehi Hiraishi has more.

Streams in East Maui from Nahiku to Wailua, Keʻanae to Honopou are flowing once again.

Water trickling down Wailuanui Stream in East Maui. The stream is one of ten streams ordered to full restoration by the state Water Commission last week. Full restoration ensures enough water will remain in the stream for public trust purposes.
Credit Courtney Collison / Flickr

Last week the state Commission on Water Resource Management ordered the end to diversions of water from the East Maui watershed by Alexander and Baldwin’s subsidiary East Maui Irrigation Company.  

“The return of those natural flowing streams after having been diverted for over 100 years is an unprecedented ruling,” says Summer Sylva, an attorney with the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation (NHLC).

A map of East Maui streams (blue) and the diversions (red). Since the East Maui Irrigation System began construction in 1870, water has been hauled from these streams to feed the thirsty sugarcane crops in Central Maui.
Credit Zachary Smith / Office of Hawaiian Affairs

“Back in 2001, the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation on behalf of our clients Na Moku Aupuni o Ko’olau Hui, Lurlyn Scott and Stanford Kekahuna, filed petitions to establish minimal stream flow standards for, at the time, 27 streams,” says Sylva.

“And that’s important to keep in mind because there were no minimum stream flows,” says Camille Kalama, an attorney with NHLC.

A swimming hole near Pua'a Ka'a Falls in East Maui. Recreation is one of nine public trust purposes protected by the state by leaving water in the stream.
Credit Jshyun / Flickr

“In other words the amount of water that has to remain in the stream to protect all the public trust purposes including growing kalo, supporting native stream life for gathering purposes, recreation...before allowing any of that water to be diverted for commercial use,” says Kalama.

Water in Hawai’i is a public trust resource, protected under the state Constitution and Water Code. But for at least 150 years, water was managed as a private commodity mostly by plantation disrupting the free flow of streams from the mountains to the sea.

Pu'unene Mill in Central Maui was run by Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar up until 2016, when the company harvested it's last crop. Since then, the operator's parent company Alexander & Baldwin was ordered to partially restore stream flow to East Maui by removing century-old diversions of it's East Maui Irrigation System.
Credit Forest & Kim Starr / Flickr

As plantation agriculture phased out, communities went to battle for stream restoration.

“Well I think if you look historically at all the water struggles they have been lengthy,” says Kalama, “This is maybe the longest that’s taken…the longest and the biggest.  You know this involves a diversion of over 160 million gallons a day on average.”

That’s the equivalent of nearly 250 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

The Commission decided to continue diversion of a portion of water from Waikamoi Stream to provide drinking water to Upper and Lower Kula.
Credit Allie Caulfield / Flickr

The Commission in its 300-page decision restored streamflow to 25 of the 27 streams.

“Its precedent setting as well for the kind of balance I think it was able…or strived to achieve anyway,” says Sylva.

In this case, the Commission allowed water to be hauled off stream to provide drinking water to Kula residents and irrigation water for the development of diversified agriculture in Central Maui.

The taro patches of Ke'anae, Maui. Taro cultivation is recognized as a public trust purpose under Hawai'i's Water Code.
Credit Navin75 / Flickr

Alexander & Baldwin spokesman Darren Pai says they are still reviewing the lengthy decision and its impact on the companyʻs long-held goal of putting former plantation land into sustainable, diversified agriculture. 

Nonetheless, Kalama says, the communities in East Maui are already getting to work.

Makapipi Stream is one of ten East Maui streams that was orderd to be fully restored by the Commission. The decision will return free flowing water to Makapipi, which has historically supported significant taro cultivation downstream.
Credit Jimmy Emerson / Flickr

“They’re not waiting and they haven’t been,” says Kalama.

These streams have historically supported significant taro cultivation.

“They’re bringing the new generations back in and they’re opening lo’i, they’re farming as we speak, and now they’re starting to be able to harvest some of the first crops from the kalo that they planted,” says Kalama.

East Maui Decision by HPR News on Scribd