Moloka‘i Group Demands Stream Flow Restoration

July 2, 2019, 9:07 AM HST · Updated July 2, 9:14 AM
Wendy Osher · 0 Comments
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A community group on Molokaʻi is demanding the restoration of stream flows at four island streams located in the central part of the island.

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    The environmental law firm, Earthjustice filed petition with the state Commission on Water Resource Management on behalf of the group Moloka‘i Nō Ka Heke claiming the the streams have been diverted by Moloka‘i Properties Limited, dba Molokaʻi Ranch, to supply the lands it owns on the island’s west side.

    Although the Ranch shut down most of its operations over a decade ago and has abandoned many of its stream diversions, the petition alleges that it has continued to drain water from Kawela and Waikolu Streams “at amounts close to what it used during its heyday.”

    The demands come amid news that the Ranch’s Singapore-based parent company has offered the Ranch up for sale.  The 55,575 acre property went on the market in 2017 and is listed for an asking price of $260 million on the Southeby’s International Realty website.  The real estate listing notes that the property comprises 35% of the island and that whoever buys the property “will be among the top five private landowners in the state.”

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    Molokaʻi Properties Limited responded to our request for comment by providing the following statement: “We have just heard about this and do not have any details at this time. We are therefore unable to comment.”

    Moloka‘i Nō Ka Heke member Walter Ritte said, “For over a hundred years, these waters had been diverted miles across the island for cattle and ag operations on Moloka‘i Ranch.  Significant negative impacts to the ahupua‘a include the aquifers, the streams and life in the streams, the many fishponds along the shore, limu grounds, fish stocks and the health of the reef.  Moloka‘i Ranch has shut down most of its operations and has put the ranch up for sale and cannot justify the need for these diversions.”

    Moloka‘i Nō Ka Heke is asking for the restoration of stream flows to Kawela, Kaunakakai, Manawainui, and Waikolu Streams. Kawela, Kaunakakai, and Manawainui Streams flow from the island’s windward mountain range to the south shore, while Waikolu Stream flows from the mountains to the north shore.

    Backers of the request say the streams are used by residents for cultural subsistence practices and also feed the groundwater aquifers that are the island’s source of drinking water and the south shore reef and fishpond ecosystems.

    “Returning the water to Kawela ahupua‘a will bring back life that it once had before,” said Moloka‘i Nō Ka Heke member and Kawela resident Lohiao Paoa.  “It was known to provide for our people in the past, and it’s a crucial part of Moloka‘i’s water future.  Kawela Stream deserves respect.”

    “Moloka‘i Ranch has been taking water from these streams for far too long with no accountability to the needs and rights of the ‘āina and the people of the island,” said Earthjustice attorney Mahesh Cleveland.  “It’s time to return these waters to their natural flow, and for the Ranch to remove or remediate its diversion dams.  We are committed to helping the people of Moloka‘i safeguard their water resources and the ecosystems that depend on them, now and for the future.”

    Moloka‘i Nō Ka Heke’s seeks to establish instream flow standards for each stream and asks that the Commission order the Ranch to remove and remediate abandoned diversion works.

    The petition is similar to legal actions other community groups have taken across the state, including the Nā Wai ‘Ēhā case on Maui, in which community groups received a favorable ruling from the Hawai‘i Supreme Court in 2012. That resulted in the release of water in 2014 to meet updated water flow requirements.  Among the parties involved in that contested case settlement were Earthjustice, Maui Tomorrow Foundation and  the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.

    Earthjustice notes that the Moloka‘i petition also comes nearly two decades after the Waiāhole case on O‘ahu, in which the court issued an opinion in 2000 affirming public trust protections for water resources.

    Crowd at press conference held on Monday, July 1, 2019.

    How Kawela Stream looks like when some water is allowed to go over the dam and flow downstream.

    Dry streambed at mouth of Kawela Stream.

    Water being diverted into a reservoir while the stream runs dry.

    Photo from last week showing Kawela Dam draining Kawela Stream dry.

    Wendy Osher
    Wendy Osher leads the Maui Now news team. She is also the news voice of parent company, Pacific Media Group, having served nearly 20 years as News Director for the company’s six Maui radio stations.

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