High Court Rules on Maui Water Rights at Nā Wai ‘Ehā

August 16, 2012, 8:29 AM HST · Updated August 16, 3:26 PM
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File photo of Iao Stream in West Maui where stream diversions and water rights have been the subject of Water Commission reviews. Photo by Wendy Osher

By Wendy Osher

Taro farmers on Maui and several community groups are celebrating a decision made by the Hawai’i Supreme Court on Wednesday to vacate a state commission ruling over water rights at Nā Wai ‘Ehā.

The groups claimed the public trust was violated when the earlier ruling failed to restore any water to two of the four streams under review.  The groups also claimed the earlier decision failed to protect traditional and customary rights of native Hawaiians.

At the heart of the issue is a more than 100-year-old irrigation ditch system that was designed to divert water to sustain the island’s sugar industry.

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Taro farmers and environmental advocates involved in the contested case are seeking a “more balanced” sharing of the public trust water resources as efforts are made to return water to a location once identified as the largest continuous area of taro cultivation in Hawai‘i.

The Office of Hawaiian Affairs, Hui o Nā Wai ‘Ehā, and Maui Tomorrow were the groups involved in the appeal of the commission’s decision.

A sign at Iao Valley State Park points to the significance of Na Wai ‘Eha and the streams that sustained the life below. Photo by Wendy OSHER.

Colette Machado, Chiar of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, Board of Trustees said she was “optimistic” about the decision.  “This long-overdue victory protects the cultural and traditional rights of native Hawaiians and will have a far-reaching effect. The ruling shows agencies must protect natural resources that are critical not only to our immediate well-being, but to the very survival of our culture and way of life,” said Machado.

OHA Chief Executive Officer Kamana‘opono Crabbe also expressed support of the decision saying, “OHA is pleased that the Hawai‘i Supreme Court has once again reiterated the legal obligation of state agencies to protect the exercise of traditional and customary native Hawaiian rights and practices to the extent feasible, and hopes that the Water Commission, and other state agencies, will at last take the court’s admonitions to heart.”

The four major streams of Nā Wai ‘Ehā or “the four great waters” include Waihe‘e, Waiehu, ‘Īao and Waikapū.

The case now returns to the state panel for review.

***Supporting information courtesy Office of Hawaiian Affairs.

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