He Wai Ola: Effectuating Water Justice in Maui Komohana


Waiololi a me Waiolola. Nā wai kaulana o ka ʻāina. Wai kamaha‘o i ka piko o ke kuahiwi. Ka ua loku o Waiʻoli. Wai hiwahiwa ʻo Mokuhinia. Ka ua kaulana aʻo Hāʻao.

Epithets relating to the many water forms are prolific throughout Hawaiʻi’s mele, moʻolelo, and more. There are distinct names for each type of rain. There are detailed words to describe the way water sounds and moves. Poetic epithets can even reference specific places without mentioning any place names.

Our people intimately knew the water resources of their ʻāina. For both practical and spiritual reasons, Kānaka Maoli knew – and know – that in water, there is life. For Kānaka Maoli, wai shaped all aspects of life. It also shapes our laws here in Hawaiʻi.

Hawaiʻi has a unique and progressive legal framework around ʻāina and natural resources – in large part due to the people and nohona (lifestyle) of this place. In Hawaiʻi, water is not a commodity that can be owned by any one person. Wai is held in trust for the benefit of present and future generations. In Hawaiʻi, protections around water are elevated in our cultural precepts and in Hawaiʻi’s constitution.

Hawaiʻi’s communities, and Kānaka Maoli in particular, have been at the forefront of bringing legal and cultural mandates to life on the ground.

For example, the kūpaʻa mahiʻai kalo of Waiāhole tackled long-standing inequities to confirm the public trust doctrine as a fundamental principle of constitutional law in Hawaiʻi. The great waters of Nā Wai ʻEhā were restored after grassroots efforts urged decisionmakers to fulfill their kuleana under this very public trust. Kalo farmers in Waiʻoli articulated the broad and significant environmental benefits of traditional practices of loʻi kalo cultivation.

Photo: Maui stream

In Maui Komohana (West Maui), issues around the pono management of wai has colored this ʻāina’s history, especially in the context of plantation diverters. These long-standing issues naturally implicate larger conversations around what is right, and what justice looks like. And now, amidst the devastation of our beloved people and places, the kupa of Maui Komohana continue to advocate for pono.

A story familiar throughout Hawaiʻi pae ʻāina, Maui Komohana remained steadfast despite the winds of the outside change: from whaling to sandalwood trade, plantations, and eventually, tourism.

The rise of sugar plantations and the introduction of commercial agriculture completely disrupted the intricate resource management systems that sustained abundant ʻāina momona. Rather than viewing water as a kinolau, these corporations utilized water as a commodity that fueled their thriving businesses and altered the natural course of water. This disruption had profound impacts on this ʻāina.

Maui Komohana is home to a rich history of abundance that long sustained its kamaʻāina – the people of this place. Known for its bountiful ʻulu trees, Lahaina was a famed ʻāina momona. An ʻōlelo noʻeau recalls its prosperity saying, “hālau Lahaina malu i ka ʻulu,” or, Lahaina is like a large hale (house) shaded by breadfruit trees.

Because of this bounty, our aliʻi made this ʻāina the seat of governance. Located in the moku of Lahaina and ʻili of Waineʻe, Mokuʻula was the piko of the Hawaiian Kingdom, serving as the political and religious center of Hawaiʻi.

Mokuhinia, the associated loko, included a flourishing 17 acres that not only provided food and physical nourishment, but was also home to moʻo Kihawahine, an ʻaumakua to the Piʻilani genealogy who is credited with Kamehameha’s success in unifying the islands. Mokuʻula and Loko ʻo Mokuhinia became known as the “Venice of the Pacific” because of its many intricate waterways.

As corporations disrupted that natural flow of water, the thriving loko of Mokuhinia became a stagnant “swamp land” and was eventually condemned by the State of Hawaiʻi in the early 20th century. This immense wahi pana was eventually filled and is now below what was a baseball field and parking lot.

Over the years, these corporations continued to justify their water use and tourism became prevalent.

Calling out these injustices and leading the charge for change, in 2022 the kupa of Maui Komohana turned to the Commission on Water Resource Management to support the designation of their ʻāina as a water management area. Designation, which was unanimously approved by the commission in that same year, is one of the principal tools by which Hawaiʻi’s Water Code seeks to manage and prioritize water resources – especially those that are threatened or shrouded in disputes.

In short, designation is a process by which water allocations are re-examined using current legal standards, which prioritize Native Hawaiian traditional and customary use for practices such as loʻi kalo cultivation. Designation represents the first meaningful step in obtaining water equity and serves as an instrumental piece in the broader tapestry of restorative justice for Kānaka in Maui Komohana.

Since then, Ka Huli Ao and the William S. Richardson School of Law’s Native Hawaiian Rights Clinic has had the privilege of following the community’s lead and supporting their efforts to effectuate justice on the ground and in the context of wai in particular.

With funding from the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, over 20 law students have worked to support the community with historical research, informational materials, research pertaining to appurtenant rights, mapping, and more. Beyond partnering with the community to offer direct legal services, the clinic provides current law students the opportunity to advance legal and administrative justice on a wide range of issues relating to Native Hawaiian law.

Despite the winds of change and horrific devastation in Maui Komohana, this community is strong.

An 1862 mele published in Ka Nūpepa Kūokoʻa entitled E Hoʻi ka Nani i Mokuʻula amplifies the beauty and splendor of Maui and declares, “let the glory return!” As this community rallies around one another, we center the visions of bounty that sustain pono and kamaʻāina since time immemorial.

As we also turn to history to offer a way forward, we know that grassroots community efforts have achieved better resource management and most importantly, justice.

It is time to re-center kamaʻāina voices in decisions being made about their place. Wai is key to Maui Komohana’s future, and this community – and the legal and cultural mandates that make Hawaiʻi, Hawaiʻi – must be centered prominently in decision-making.

Our aloha can offer malu today towards a vision of ulu – of growth – flourishing once again in Lahaina, a beautiful, strong ʻāina that will ulu hou.

Ola i ka malu ʻulu o Lele! E hoʻi ka nani i Mokuʻula – may the beauty return to Mokuʻula and life to Maui Komohana.