Today, Maui community groups Hui o Nā Wai ‘Ehā and Maui Tomorrow Foundation, represented by Earthjustice, filed a legal petition to the state Commission on Water Resource Management to increase the flows in Nā Wai ‘Ehā — Maui’s “Four Great Waters” of Waihe‘e River, Waiehu Stream, Wailuku River , and Waikapū Stream.
The filing was based on the recent announcement by Alexander & Baldwin, Inc. that it will shut down its Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar plantation by year’s end.
As the petition explains, HC&S is the predominant user of up to 80% of Nā Wai ‘Ehā stream flow diversions, and moving to more sustainable agriculture will mean using less water and leaving more flows in the rivers and streams to restore native ecosystems, revitalize local communities and Native Hawaiian culture, and recharge public drinking water aquifers.
“While our hearts go out to the plantation workers affected by HC&S’s closure, we also look forward to the opportunity to right past wrongs and chart a new future for Nā Wai ‘Ehā,” said John V. Duey, President of Hui o Nā Wai ‘Ehā. “Nā Wai ‘Ehā stream flows are a public trust for all the people, and it’s time to embrace this kuleana (responsibility) in the 21st century,” he said.
“I grew up in a Hawai‘i where ‘sugar was king,’” said Maui Tomorrow Executive Director Albert Perez. “This petition recognizes that times have changed and we have an opportunity to rebalance our water distribution to reflect current conditions. We desperately need increased stream flows to restore our declining fisheries, recharge the aquifers that supply most of Maui residents with water, and support more food production from small farms in the fertile lands of Nā Wai ‘Ehā. With transition to the right kind of farming practices and crops on HC&S land, there would be enough water for all, and all water would be well used.”
Historically, Nā Wai ‘Ehā has been diverted by two companies, HC&S and Wailuku Water Company , the former Wailuku Sugar plantation that now uses the plantation ditch system to sell diverted stream flows to the public, including the County of Maui, according to Earthjustice.
Earthjustice originally petitioned in 2004 to restore Nā Wai ‘Ehā stream flows and took the case all the way to the Hawai‘i Supreme Court, which ruled in 2012 that the Water Commission failed to adequately protect public and Native Hawaiian rights to flowing streams. In 2014, a settlement restored partial flows  to all four of Nā Wai ‘Ehā, while accommodating HC&S’s ongoing plantation water uses for almost 5,000 acres in Central Maui.
Now, HC&S’s closure of sugar operations  presents new circumstances that the Water Commission must address in fulfilling its ongoing public trust duties to restore stream flows to Nā Wai ‘Ehā , representatives with Earthjustice said. A similar shift occurred in the Waiāhole Ditch case on O‘ahu, where the close of the sugar plantation and conversion to diversified agriculture resulted in substantial flows being returned to Windward O‘ahu streams.
“HC&S’s closure is a ‘game changer’ that compels a new, hard look at Nā Wai ‘Ehā’s and Maui’s water future,” said Earthjustice attorney Summer Kupau-Odo. “We support efforts to find a new, sustainable model for Maui agriculture that facilitates restoring flows to public rivers and streams. The water was never A&B’s and WWC’s property to take as they see fit, and they cannot continue to ‘bank’ it,” said Kupau-Odo.