Kawela Stream originates in the East Molokaʻi mountains and flows south, its forked valley reaching the shore about 5 miles east of Kaunakakai. Kawela ahupua’a stretches from Kakahaiʻa in the east, formerly an inland fishpond, to One Aliʻi Beach Park.

Lohiao Paoa, 30, was raised in Kawela, in the house that was once the only building along a now-crowded stretch of highway. On his paternal grandmother’s side, Lohiao is a Kamakana, a family with long-standing ties to Kawela.

After leaving for college, Paoa knew when he moved home that it was for life. “When I went away to school – yes, I was taught the value of education, of maybe going away to get that knowledge – but in my mind, I never did put down the fact that if you stayed home, it’s a different type of knowledge, and I always envied that about my friends who stayed.”

In 2018, Paoa joined the Aloha ʻĀina Fellows program, to learn more about Molokaʻi’s natural resources and how to protect them for future generations. His then newborn son was often with him at classes, a constant reminder for Paoa of why he was there, but he didn’t know yet how he could make a difference.

Kawela ahupuaʻa is a hydrological wonder. Outflow from the watershed is naturally absorbed below ground about two-thirds of the way to the ocean, emerging near sea level as springs and wetlands. The low density of older layers of rock means that the stream can flow visibly only when the rock underneath is saturated, which depends on the consistent flow of water from the watershed down through the drier plains.

But hidden from view, Kawela’s hydrological health had steadily eroded since the early 1900s. To irrigate arid West Molokaʻi, plantation-era landowners dammed Kawela and other streams deep in the Kamakou Forest Reserve. Most days, the Kawela Dam took every drop of water out of the stream – for over a century.

And it shows.

Kakahaiʻa was once a bountiful spring-fed inland fishpond. In the late 1800s, Chinese farmers used Kakahaiʻa for rice paddies. The damming of Kawela happened around 1910. By the 1970s, the pond was mostly gone, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated Kakahaiʻa as a National Wildlife Refuge, attempting to secure habitat for rare wetland birds.

Today, Kakahaiʻa is a dust bowl, overtaken by invasive plants and animals. There is rarely any wetland wildlife in the refuge because there is no water in the wetland.

Such wetlands were a key component of Kawela’s historic momona, but with little or no water coming down the mountain, other than sediment-laden floods, Kawela’s waters have faded away.

This slow death has been visible to those who know Kawela well.

Teave Heen was born in Kawela in 1980 and grew up a short walk from Kawela Stream. “We spent choke time at the river when it was running. It ran more often back then, clear and deep where you could swim maybe a few times a month. Now it’s a couple times a year, if anything.”

Because surface and groundwater are innately linked, the reduction in stream recharge can also contribute to rising salinity levels in wells.

Uncle Timmy Leong, 73, moved to Kawela in 1990. What drew him to water issues was the purity of Kawela’s well water.

“When we first moved out here to Kawela, the water was so sweet that while we were building our house, we would fill up containers and take it back to town for drinking.”

But over the years, Leong noticed increases in reported salinity levels for some of Kawela’s wells.

“That was what made me decide to do something, because it was the best water I had ever tasted, and to see the salinity going up was very, very concerning.”

In 2018, Heen was taking Hawaiian Studies classes at UH Mānoa. “We studied our ahupuaʻa, the rains, the winds. And the sense of kuleana sank in. My thoughts always went back to the water. Why does it not flow as often? I wanted to know, and I wanted to do something about it. So I started doing research, and I was actually praying about it, like, how do I do this?”

Then in 2019, Heen got a call from a friend who said there was a hui forming up to attempt to restore Kawela Stream. “In that moment, it wasn’t even a question, it was like, ‘Yes! Mahalo Ke Akua!’ Finding out people were working on this was literally an answer to my prayers.”

Having recently completed the Aloha ʻĀina fellowship, Paoa was also ready to jump in. “It was a no-brainer. This was our chance to put our kuleana into action.”

“It’s a double-edged sword,” Leong said about joining the hui. “It takes a lot of effort and time to participate, but it is truly necessary work. If you don’t step up and speak, the consequences for the ʻāina can be drastic.”

Heen, Paoa, and Leong joined forces with others to form a group they called Molokaʻi Nō Ka Heke (which translates roughly as “Molokaʻi mo’ bettah”), to reflect their island pride. In July 2019, Molokaʻi Nō Ka Heke, represented by nonprofit law firm Earthjustice, formally requested the Hawaiʻi Commission on Water Resource Management (Water Commission) to establish protective flow standards for Kawela and the other mountain streams and to prevent the diverter from draining Kawela beyond reasonable needs.

For over two years, Water Commission staff collected additional data, and made several visits to Kawela to measure stream flow, observe aquatic life, and exchange knowledge with stakeholders. Molokaʻi Nō Ka Heke members participated in these huakaʻi, joined by staff from ʻĀina Momona, a nonprofit that manages Keawanui fishpond and farm in Kaʻamola ahupuaʻa, a few miles east of Kawela.

“Traditional science is our foundation here, but we also work with researchers and our staff to connect the dots with Western sciences,” said Momi Afelin, 23, ʻĀina Momona’s director of Research and Community Engagement. “We appreciated the commission hydrologist taking the time to discuss his work with us, to better understand these issues from both perspectives.”

Last February, the Water Commission announced a public informational meeting, with a decision slated for March, which was then deferred to a third meeting in April. Molokaʻi Nō Ka Heke and ʻĀina Momona sprang into action and showed up in full force, three months in a row.

Having first educated themselves, the “AM Crew” went door-to-door in Kawela, informing the community about Kawela’s water issues, collecting petition signatures in support of restoration, and inviting people to an online community meeting to learn more. Hui members from their teens to their 70s prepared and delivered informed, thoughtful, and moving oral testimony at all three commission meetings.

Between the February and March meetings, new information came to light, showing the diverter taking about nine times the amount of water needed to meet West Molokaʻi’s needs. At that point, the hui came together and made an important decision.

“What was amazing to me was we all walked in with the same manaʻo,” said Leong. “We all knew at that point we had to pursue full restoration for Kawela. There was just no justification for the level of wastefulness.” The hui knew that Kawela was where their efforts could have the most beneficial impact.

They also knew it was about how they presented their case. “It would be easy for them [the commissioners] to look at a guy from Kawela and say, ‘oh, he’s just angry,’ and honestly it would be easy for us to be angry about the situation,” said Paoa. “But we didn’t go in there snapping. We went in with facts. We went in with kuleana. And we went in with appreciation for what we knew the commission could do.”

“The same way we inherited these problems, we inherited the kuleana to do something about it,” said Afelin. “Showing that young people care and are making the effort to get informed and take action seemed to move the commissioners.”

On April 19, the Water Commission approved the highest stream flow standard ever adopted without a lawsuit, and went even further, requiring the return of all water to Kawela for at least six months while the diverter conducts a water system audit. On May 11, hui members visited the Kawela Dam with commission staff to witness the temporary restoration. In October, the commission expects to revisit the issue and consider making it permanent.

For many hui members, advocating to a government agency was a new experience. “This was my first time doing this,” said Heen. “Then to see it unfold…we changed things. We changed the whole course of it by coming in and saying this is what we want as a community based on what’s actually happening.”

Asked about her hopes for Kawela’s future, Heen knows this is just the beginning of the healing Kawela needs. “It could take a long time to fill up this cup. But that’s what we want. We want this to create the opportunity for life to come back to Kawela.”

Paoa would like to see Kawela’s springs and fishponds restored. “We want to be able to produce things for the community. Maybe first it’s education, but then it’s food. It’s not about trying to go back in time, it’s about going forward. You could be using modern tools or technology, but the main thing is the cultural values. Culture is always the key.”

“Two of our hui had babies this spring, right in the middle of it all,” said Afelin. “These kids were born into this, at this turning point. I hope that in their future, it’s normal for them to see Kakahaiʻa or the river full of water more often.”

Leong sometimes wonders. “You know, we seem to be on the right track, but it brings up questions like, will these kids ever know the true sweetness of the water? The coolness of the fresh running stream? Will Kawela come back? My uncle told me when I was young, ‘the land will be only as good as the people.’” He pauses, raw emotion written across his face. “So the real question is…what kind of people are we?”

And Molokaʻi’s new generation has an answer.

“He aliʻi ka ʻāina, he kauwā ke kanaka: the land is the chief and we are its servants,” says hui member Leihiwahiwa Ritte, 19, of Hoʻolehua. “It’s our kuleana to mālama this ʻāina so that she can continue to mālama us. Through these efforts we are learning to perpetuate what our kūpuna have been saying for generations. We know the work is just getting started, and we are ready to ʻauamo our kuleana.”

Mahesh Cleveland, born in Honokalā, East Maui, and tracing his Maoli heritage to Nāhiku and Hāna, is an attorney with the Honolulu office of nonprofit environmental law firm Earthjustice. Mahesh, together with Leinā’ala Ley and veteran water lawyer Isaac Moriwake, has represented Molokaʻi Nō Ka Heke since 2019. Mahesh believes that community engagement and kānaka co-management of natural resources is the key to a sustainable future for Hawaiʻi.