Maui: In water we trust
Maui: In water we trust

MAUI—The path to a sustainable food future for Hawai`i involves many things, including an economically viable plan, government and public support, and a fresh perspective. But a key concern for farmers, some say even more so than land, is water.

The Department of Land and Natural Resources’ Commission on Water Resource Management says that a significant expansion of Hawai`i’s diversified agriculture industry is an attainable and economically worthwhile goal—with available farm lands as well as adequate irrigation water.

With the closure of the last large sugarcane plantations in the 1990s, the State issued the Agricultural Water Use and Development Plan. Its purpose was to identify Hawai`i’s water system rehabilitation needs and prioritize system repair.

The most logical way to expand Hawai`i’s agriculture industry, the plan said, is to focus on the replacement of the large quantities of vegetables and fruits now being imported into the State from overseas (primarily from the U.S. mainland, South America, and Australia). This would be done through the availability of large tracts of former sugarcane lands throughout the State, large irrigation systems widely scattered throughout the State, and an all-season growing climate.

In order to provide perspective on meeting Hawai`i’s water needs for this particular food future, we ought first take a look to Maui.

A natural flow


The people of Maui face many complex water issues that will profoundly affect the community’s ability to sustain itself into the future.

Kahalawai on the West and Haleakala on the East, joined together by the central isthmus plain, form the island of Maui. Dike-impounded water and rainfall deep within these volcanic mountains produce Maui’s intricate stream systems that naturally carry freshwater from mauka to makai.

Water is a public resource that the State of Hawai`i holds in trust for all of Hawai`i’s people.


As the streams flow toward the sea, they provide a corridor of flowing water necessary for the survival of native `o`opu (goby fish), `opae (shrimp), and hihiwai (mollusks), which require time in both freshwater streams and the ocean to survive.

A portion of the flowing stream water percolates into the ground, recharging freshwater aquifers and feeding springs that bubble up to create wetlands.

The water that does not seep into the ground sustains populations of nearshore life like limu (seaweed), fish, and crustaceans, which require an influx of freshwater to thrive.

By ancient hands


Maui’s streams were once utilized to sustain all its people, prior to the demands brought on by the industrial revolution.

The Hawaiians of ancient times organized their communities around the life-giving streams, constructing extensive `auwai (irrigation channels), to bring cool, flowing water through lo`i kalo (wetland taro patches) to grow their staple food crop and other plants important to their diet, culture, and everyday life. After providing for domestic uses and flowing though series of lo`i kalo, the water returned to the stream to complete its natural course to the sea.

By the mid 1800s, foreign businessmen viewed Maui’s abundant stream water along with the year-round sunshine and vast central plains as the makings of profitable sugarcane plantations.

In 1876, the founders of Alexander and Baldwin, Inc. (A&B) began constructing irrigation ditches on Haleakala’s eastern flank that eventually became East Maui Irrigation Company’s (EMI’s) 74-mile system of ditches, tunnels, pipes, and siphons, fed by 388 intakes on more than 100 streams, with a capacity to deliver up to 450 million gallons of water per day.

The streams of Kahalawai fed numerous irrigation systems with the total capacity of more than 200 million gallons per day. Wailuku Sugar Company’s system irrigated sugarcane along Kahalawai’s eastern slope and parts of the central plain with a capacity exceeding 70 million gallons per day, while Honolua Ranch and Pioneer Mill Company maintained ditch systems on the western slope.

Over the course of a century, the plantation owners continued to drain hundreds of streams dry as they produced sugar for export. Upstream diversions left little water to flow through the ancient `auwai, and lo`i kalo dried up. Streams dewatered with grates or dams spanning their widths blocked the natural migration of native stream species, and freshwater no longer mixed with seawater to support limu and nearshore life.

Water is a public trust resource


It was the industry’s own demands that ultimately directed the streams, in ways, back to Maui’s people.

In 1973, the Hawai`i Supreme Court ruled in a dispute between two sugar plantations that neither plantation owned the stream water they diverted because water could not be and was not a private commodity under Hawai`i law. Rather, water is a public resource that the State of Hawai`i holds in trust for all of Hawai`i’s people. 

In 1979, Hawai`i voters adopted the concept of water as a public trust in Article XI of Hawai`i’s Constitution. The Legislature adopted the Water Code in 1987, establishing a legal framework to regulate and protect freshwater resources for present and future generations. The Commission on Water Resource Management was created to carry out the State’s public trust duty.

Under the Water Code, the commission’s primary mechanism to protect streams are through “instream flow standards,” or the amount of water that must stay in the streams to support public uses like maintaining wildlife habitat and healthy ecosystems, providing recreation and aesthetic beauty, and protecting Native Hawaiian rights.

The Water Commission may also designate “water management areas” when disputes arise over the use of waters within aquifers or streams, requiring water users to prove their existing and desired uses are reasonable and beneficial.

A new era


An increasing number of plantations ceased sugarcane production across Maui through the turn of the millennium.

Families that had been forced to stop growing and gathering their own food and were no longer able to enjoy the benefits of flowing streams began to question the plantation-era irrigation systems that continued to dewater Maui’s streams at undiminished levels.

Empowered by the State Constitution and Hawai`i Supreme Court decisions affirming water as a public trust resource and the right of Native Hawaiians to engage in traditional and customary practices dependant on flowing streams, community groups and individuals representing thousands of Maui residents began to seek the return of Maui’s stream water to the people. 

For more on water cases in Hawaii, click here

In 2001, Na Moku Aupuni o Koolau Hui (Na Moku), represented by Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation, challenged the long-term lease of State watershed lands to A&B and EMI. Na Moku argued that EMI’s practice of leaving little to no water downstream of its diversions on State lands harmed the rights of Native Hawaiians. In 2006, the Hawai`i Supreme Court agreed and sent the case back to the Board of Land and Natural Resources to account for Native Hawaiian rights.

In 2001, Na Moku also asked the Water Commission to restore enough flow to 27 of the 110 East Maui streams diverted by EMI to support kalo farmers and healthy native stream life. 

Focusing first on eight of the 27 streams, in 2008, the Water Commission ordered the return of approximately 12 million gallons per day to five streams to support public uses and traditional and customary rights.

The Water Commission issued instream flow standards on the remaining 19 streams in 2010.

Hui o Na Wai `Eha and Maui Tomorrow


In 2004, Hui o Na Wai `Eha and Maui Tomorrow Foundation, Inc. (Hui), represented by Earthjustice, petitioned the Water Commission to restore flow to the four streams of Na Wai `Eha on Kahalawai’s western slope and Maui’s central plain.

Despite Wailuku Sugar Company’s demise, successor Wailuku Water Company continued to drain Na Wai `Eha streams to sell for housing developments, golf courses, and agriculture. The Hui demanded some of the diverted water remain in the streams and `auwai to satisfy their ancient water rights entitling them to water for kalo and domestic uses, and to provide for native stream and nearshore life, swimming, aquifer recharge, wetlands revitalization, and a host of other public uses.

The Water Commission designated Na Wai `Eha streams a water management area in 2008, establishing public control over the stream waters and requiring offstream users to justify their uses.

In April 2009, the Water Commission’s hearings officer proposed releasing nearly half of the diverted flows back into Na Wai `Eha streams. The proposed decision recommended restoration of 34.5 million gallons a day (mgd) to the streams, or about half of the total stream flow of 60 to 70 mgd. 

In June 2010, the Water Commission’s final decision was issued. A majority of the commission, with one commissioner dissenting, decided to reduce the amount of restoration to only 12.5 mgd and leave two of the four streams, ‘Iao and Waikapu, in their completely dewatered state, without restoration of any flow. This 12.5 mgd is even less than the 16.5 mgd one of the diverters, Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar, a division of A&B, had argued as a last-ditch alternative to the initial recommendation, Earthjustice said.

To read the Water Commission’s 2010 decision, click here

“This is a miscarriage of justice, and it will not stand,” said Earthjustice attorney Isaac Moriwake in 2010. “In the 21st century, the commission majority is still letting plantation politics, rather than the law, rule our most precious resource.”

In July 2010, the same community groups Hui o Na Wai ‘Eha and Maui Tomorrow Foundation, Inc., again represented by Earthjustice, announced the settlement of another lawsuit with Maui County challenging the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for a proposed water treatment plant that would have taken water from the streams involved in the ongoing Maui water rights case.

A&B had proposed to build a plant which would treat up to 9 million gallons a day from Waihe‘e River, one of Na Wai ‘Eha, “The Four Great Waters” of Waihe‘e River and Waiehu, ‘Iao, and Waikapu Streams. The water was to be delivered by the ditch system owned by A&B’s Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar plantation and Wailuku Water Company.

Earthjustice filed the EIS challenge in State court on Maui seeking to prevent the Wai‘ale Treatment Facility project from going forward. Under the settlement, the parties agreed that the County’s acceptance of the EIS should be invalidated.

“Because the Water Commission’s decision directly affects the proposed Wai‘ale plant, we have agreed to revisit the EIS,” then-Maui County Mayor Charmaine Tavares said in July 2010. “We look forward to working cooperatively with Hui o Na Wai ‘Eha, Maui Tomorrow, Alexander & Baldwin, and other stakeholders in resolving critical issues affecting the environment and the public water supply.”

To read more about Maui’s partial stream flow restoration in 2010, click here

Hawaiian Commercial and Sugar Company


Today, the major user at the end of the EMI and Wailuku Water Company ditch systems is A&B subsidiary Hawaiian Commercial and Sugar Company (HC&S). The EMI system irrigates the majority of HC&S’s 36,000-acre plantation, with one-seventh of the land currently watered by Na Wai `Eha streams.

HC&S continues to grow sugarcane, while leasing some of the land to Monsanto to grow seed corn. EMI also provides water to upcountry farmers on the slopes of Haleakala. 

Historically, HC&S supplemented the stream water systems with 16 wells tapping groundwater beneath its plantation with the capacity to pump over 240 million gallons per day.

Maui County relies on surface water from the EMI and Wailuku Water Company ditch systems for municipal needs in upcountry and central Maui. Leaving water in the streams is also important for the County because the streams recharge groundwater aquifers that supply the majority of Maui’s drinking water.

According to the United States Geological Survey, `Iao Aquifer on Maui’s west end, which provides more than half of Maui’s drinking water, would be recharged at a rate of over 12 million gallons per day—nearly 70 percent of the amount currently pumped out of the aquifer each day—if water was left in Na Wai `Eha streams.

The people of Hawaii’s fight for water holds a complex history. Ensuring that our islands’ water reaches beyond a few beneficiaries is key to a sustainable food future.

In future coverage, The Hawaii Independent plans to delve further into the potential impacts of stream restoration on Hawaii’s society as a whole.