East Maui Water Wars: End in Sight?

Nā Moku members measure stream flow and collect water quality data for an East Maui stream.

After over a century of conflict, a ballot initiative, Charter Amendment No. 12, seeks to enable community self-determination over Maui’s streams

By Tara Apo and Wayne Tanaka

Ed Wendt vividly remembers the day he escorted Alexander & Baldwin (A&B) officials on a site visit above Wailuanui, East Maui, the ancestral home where he and his family have farmed kalo for many generations. His goal: to explore options for restoring some measure of stream flow, so that the farmers, cultural practitioners and native life could once again thrive in the region.

“One of the officials opened his water bottle, which was mostly empty, and shook out the last few remaining drops,” recalls Wendt. “ʻThat’s all the water you’re ever going to get,’ he told us.”

Nearly 30 years later, that A&B representative has moved on – but Wendt and the ʻohana of East Maui have remained, continuing the multi-generational fight to uphold the public trust, and defend East Maui’s streams, watersheds, and people from profit-driven exploitation.

Now, in the latest development in a century-long saga revolving around water, land and power on Maui Island, Maui County voters will be able to decide on a ballot initiative – Charter Amendment No. 12 – that could divest A&B and its corporate partner from their control of East Maui’s streams. Instead, the fate of Maui’s water resources could be placed in the hands of community-based “water authorities” comprised of regional residents and place-based experts in water management and watershed protection.

A Century Long Saga for Stream Justice

The historic battles over East Maui’s waters have been long and hard fought.

Throughout much of the 20th century, A&B and its subsidiary East Maui Irrigation drained hundreds of millions of gallons of stream water every day from 33,000 acres of “ceded” lands in East Maui, to irrigate sugar cane fields in Central Maui. As part of the “Territory” of Hawaiʻi’s corporate oligarchy, A&B would deprive entire communities of the water they depended upon, notwithstanding Kingdom-era lease provisions and public trust requirements that should have protected their rights to water.

As a result, lo‘i kalo were abandoned, subsistence resources dwindled, and invasive species thrived. Families were effectively displaced from their ancestral lands, forced to move to other areas to eke out an existence in an unfamiliar and rapidly changing socioeconomic landscape.

In the 1980s, A&B’s latest long-term water license expired, yet it was allowed to continue diverting water through revocable permits issued to itself and its subsidiary, East Maui Irrigation. Remaining East Maui ʻohana, led by its first and long-time president Wendt, subsequently formed Nā Moku ʻAupuni o Koʻolau Hui, to fight for their water rights and perpetuate the lifestyles and ʻāina that sustained them.

The Lowrie is one of five ditches that deliver millions of gallons of East Maui stream water to Central Maui each day. – Photos: Courtesy

In the ensuing decades, Nā Moku and its allies would engage in a legal and political back and forth that continues to this day. Now, the tide finally appears to be turning: a historic 2018 decision by the Water Commission ordered the complete or near-complete restoration of flow to nine East Maui streams and one major tributary, and the partial restoration of flow to 12 more; the Hawaiʻi Supreme Court this year also ruled that the issuance of revocable permits by the Board of Land and Natural Resources (BLNR) to divert East Maui streams – a practice that continues to this day – should trigger environmental review.

Despite significant progress, 12 streams in the Huelo region have no meaningful stream flow protections; in addition, the Sierra Club of Hawai‘i found that for the past two years, over half of the millions of gallons of water diverted every day from East Maui has been lost to seepage – yet neither the BLNR nor A&B appear inclined to fix the leaky ditches and reservoirs leading to this waste.

Moreover, with the BLNR’s final acceptance of its environmental impact statement in 2021, A&B and its new Canadian pension fund partner are poised to finally obtain a long-term water license to divert a proposed 89 million gallons of water per day from East Maui – for the next 30-50 years.

Charter Amendment No. 12: Community Self-Determination For Wai

Now, Nā Moku and stream justice advocates – with the help of the Maui County Council – have put forward an alternative proposal to the seemingly inevitable issuance of a long-term license to A&B and its Canadian partner.

If ratified by Maui County voters, Charter Amendment No. 12 would authorize the creation of “community water authorities,” including a water authority specifically for East Maui. The East Maui authority would include include expert representatives residing in four East Maui regions, as well as representatives from Upcountry and the Hawaiian Homes Commission.

The development of watershed protection, water management and distribution, and financing plans by this authority and its staff would give the county a fighting chance at obtaining the water license for East Maui, ensuring community, rather than corporate, control of our most precious public trust resource.

Three decades ago, Nā Moku started the fight for stream justice in East Maui. While many original members are now kūpuna, with some having passed on – never witnessing their vision of restored streams and shared water – Nā Moku and its next generation of leaders will continue on with their work, until this vision is achieved. Charter Amendment No. 12 may be a crucial step towards this end.

Maui voters are encouraged to learn more about this proposal at www.waterislifemaui.org, and to review the proposal itself at bit.ly/eastmauiwater.

Tara Apo is a sustainable science management student at UH Maui College and works as a community streams organizer for Sierra Club Maui Group. Wayne Chung Tanaka is the chapter director of the Sierra Club of Hawai‘i and a former public policy manager for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.