Out to dry
High time to address river diversions in Waimea canyon
Above: Kokeʻe Ditch, Waiakoali Stream diversion
There is a water battle brewing on the west side of Kauaʻi and it’s time for the public to take notice.
The Waimea River system is one of the most expansive natural water systems in the Pacific. The system is made up of dozens of streams and tributaries encompassing 85.9 square miles with a peak elevation of 5,243 feet. In total, it contains 38 streams amounting to 276.4 miles in length. This natural wonder is truly a sight to behold and is a precious resource.
It is well documented that Native Hawaiians maximized the life giving resources of the Waimea River system. At the time of western contact, records show that terraced loʻi kalo (taro patches) extended 8–10 miles inland and expanses of wetland kalo cultivation could be found deep into Waimea Canyon. Captain Cook noted upon his return to Waimea in 1784, that West Kauaʻi “inhabitants” far surpassed “all the neighbouring islanders in the management of their plantations.”
This kalo complex was fed by an intricate ditch system. The famous Kīkīaola ‘auwai system traversed the canyon and was an engineering masterpiece created by the early Hawaiians to reroute stream waters to neighboring loʻi before returning the water back on its natural course. This allowed for cultivation of every usable foot of land for kalo production. Simply put, Hawaiians maximized the resources of the canyon to create a community that flourished without significantly altering or exploiting those resources.
Fast forward to 2016. Remnants of the famous Kīkīaola ‘auwai system can still be found, but the Waimea River system is barely recognizable. In the early 1900s sugar planters supplanted the Hawaiian irrigation systems with their own ditch system. They built the Kōkeʻe and Kekaha ditches, which did much more than simply redirect the stream waters. These ditches diverted most of the water at its highest points, turning the once roaring streams into trickles. As a result, the expansive loʻi kalo complex dwindled and the environment suffered. The trade-off at the time was jobs: sugar provided a steady economy for the west side of Kauaʻi.
In 2001, the last of the sugar companies left West Kauaʻi. Logically, the water would be returned to the streams, right? Not so. Upon their departure, the sugar companies handed the Kōkeʻe and Kekaha ditch systems over to the State of Hawaiʻi. The State of Hawaiʻi then handed over control of the ditch to the state-run Agricultural Development Corporation (ADC) who in turn, has entered into an agreement with the Kauaʻi Agricultural Association (KAA)—an organization comprised, primarily, of seed companies that operate in West Kauaʻi—to manage the ditches.
These current agricultural tenants cultivate a mere fraction of what was once occupied by sugar, and the crops they grow require far less water than cane. However, ditch water has not been returned to the streams, and millions of gallons are wasted via drainage canals created specifically to release excess water directly to the ocean, resulting in heavy silt runoff.
For decades, kalo farmers have been calling for stream flows to be restored to their pre-sugar levels. Their calls have been ignored thus far. But Pōʻai Wai Ola, a hui of Waimea and Makaweli kalo farmers, have sought relief from the Commission on Water Resource Management to restore stream flow levels. The parties will be engaging in mediation soon. This is an issue the Office of Hawaiian Affairs will follow closely and continue to provide updates on. It is time for the ADC and KAA to “come correct” and to end the mismanagement and waste of this public trust resource. Restore the flow.
Dan Ahuna currently represents the islands of Kauaʻi and Niʻihau as a trustee on the board of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs