Watch: Ola i ka Wai: East Maui. 4Miles, LLC for Kamakakoʻi
On March 3, 2015 the State Commission on Water Resource Management reopened a case that the court mandated it to hear nearly three years ago. It involves ʻohana from Honopou, Keʻanae and Wailuanui in East Maui who have been farming kalo for centuries and who had been raising concerns since the 1880s.
These kalo farmers are seeking enforcement of some of Hawaiʻi’s oldest laws, which define wai (water) as a public trust resource. By law, wai must be managed by the state for the benefit of its citizens, with priority given to Native Hawaiians whose activities rely on wai for traditional purposes, such as growing kalo or gathering food from streams.
Yet the state allows Alexander and Baldwin (A&B) to use 163 million gallons of wai per day (mgd) from over 100 East Maui streams. This is about the same amount of wai that all of Oʻahu uses on an average day. A&B’s subsidiary East Maui Irrigation (EMI) extracts the water, which feeds the sugar fields of A&B’s other subsidiary, Hawaiian Commercial and Sugar (HC&S).
How can wai—entrusted to the state for the benefit of all—be diverted in such enormous quantities for so long to a for-profit company?
he story begins in the 1870s, when Maui sugar businessmen Samuel Alexander and Claus Spreckels, in separate transactions, asked King Kalākaua to lease East Maui Crown Lands, which Kalākaua owned as the monarch of the Kingdom. The businessmen hoped to build on these lands two ditch systems that would divert water from East Maui’s streams to feed their respective sugar fields in Central Maui.
ʻOhana from East Maui protested fearing that too much wai would be taken and their way of life threatened. They relied on wai for drinking, for nourishing kalo in their loʻi (pondfields), for plentiful stream life they gathered to feed their families (ʻoʻopu, hīhīwai, hapawai, ʻōpae), for the abundance in the muliwai (estuary areas) created by the brackish mix of wai and seawater near shore where young fish, invertebrates and native limu thrived. This near shore abundance also played a critical role in the reef and larger marine ecosystem, which fed Native Hawaiian communities both ma kai and ma uka.
Kalākaua protected the rights of these ʻohana, placing a clause in the Crown Lands leases prohibiting sugar businessmen from harming those living downstream of the diversions.
Construction of two limited ditch systems occurred in the late 1870s (the Old Hāmākua Ditch and the Spreckels Ditch). They cut across a portion of East Maui’s streams diverting water from those streams. The ditches ran parallel to the ocean and ultimately irrigated sugar plantations in Central Maui.
At the time, only a relatively small amount of wai was extracted. Life continued in East Maui much as it did for many generations.
According to Carol Wilcox (Sugar Water, Hawaiʻi’s Plantation Ditches, Table 4), the average flow of the two original ditches accounts for only a fraction of the modern total—4 mgd coming from the Old Hāmākua Ditch, with the Spreckels Ditch contributing nothing as it was abandoned by 1929.
A COLOSSAL INCREASE IN WATER DIVERSION
Huge changes occurred after the illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom in 1893. The asserted Provisional Government and later governments no longer restrained the sugar businessmen. After all, it was the sugar businessmen who orchestrated the overthrow. “King Sugar” ruled.
Despite repeated East Maui community protests of ditch building plans, sugar businessmen retained—and renewed over time—four leases from the territorial and state governments totaling some 33,000 acres of Crown Lands.
Between 1900 and 1923 six more ditches were built (Lowrie, New Hāmākua, Koʻolau, New Haʻikū, Kauhikoa, and Wailoa) on the leased land. These join to create four major water diversion pathways through East Maui that extract a vast majority of the average 163 mgd taken daily.
The early 1900s diversions impacted hundreds of East Maui ʻohana that were living on their Kuleana Lands that the Hawaiian Kingdom granted hoa ʻāina, or aboriginal tenants (see map of Kuleana Lands and diversions). These ʻohana cared for their own needs. But with massive increases in wai being diverted, East Maui communities were devastated.
Many ʻohana were forced to move out, as healthy streams became trickles, loʻi turned dry or too warm and stagnant to sustain kalo, and fish populations dwindled. Parched streambeds emerged as scarred wounds in the lush valleys of East Maui.
In areas where diversions did not take all the wai, families remained and adjusted to smaller flows—even through the 1980s. However, around that time, East Maui kalo farmers experienced further hardship as diversions siphoned still more wai.