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State Water Commission restores Molokaʻi’s Kawela Stream after 100 years of diversions

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How Kawela Stream looks like when some water is allowed to go over the dam and flow downstream. File photo 2019 courtesy: Earthjustice

The State of Hawai‘i Commission on Water Resource Management has unanimously restored Moloka‘i’s Kawela Stream to flow levels not seen in over one hundred years, and recommended full restoration of the stream within one year.  

The Commission’s decision on Tuesday came nearly three years after Moloka‘i Nō Ka Heke, a community group advocating for protection of Kawela and other streams, formally requested stream restoration in the summer of 2019.

Advocate, Walter Ritte said he was frustrated with precious water resources being wasted via diversions.

“Enough is enough,” said Ritte, who is a member of Moloka‘i Nō Ka Heke and longtime aloha ‘āina.  “The big ranching and ag operations are gone, and we couldn’t just sit and watch this precious water be thrown away.”

Moloka‘i Nō Ka Heke anticipates further Commission action on these water resource issues throughout 2022.  The Water Commission has given Moloka‘i Ranch 180 days to propose plans to fully restore Kawela Stream.

Water being diverted into a reservoir while Kawela stream runs dry. File photo 2019 courtesy Earthjustice.
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Attorney Cal Chipchase testified on the landowner’s behalf saying, “To be restored and maintained is practical… We donʻt have sufficient data to even be able to say MPL and DHHL’s needs could be met with that full restoration.”

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“Looking at the different trust purposes, looking at the value that is placed on inflow stream as practical value, looking at the existing uses today… As the commission staff noted, we’re not talking about future uses at this point, these are based on actual current uses and needs,” said Chipchase during testimony on Tuesday.

Chipchase said most of the loss is “estimated evaporative loss.” During testimony, he said, “The six month period that we have to evaluate the activation of the other intakes, the feasibility of that–both in terms of cost and practical abilities to do it–I think that evaluating system loss at time from evaporation would be appropriate.”

Commissioner Mike Buck said, “It is a privilege to divert public trust resources. It’s a new day for water diverters in Hawaiʻi. We cannot accept the kind of evaporative losses–of course we don’t know how much that is,” he said. “It’s really important that people who have the privilege to divert public trust resources, to make sure they have the most efficient use of the water and they’re not wasting. I believe just allowing people to monitor your water is just a small step,” said Buck.

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“Just maintaining historic water diversions built 100 years ago is not acceptable in my mind,” he said during Tuesday’s meeting.

Dr. Jonathan Likeke Scheuer also testified saying, “We are absolutely willing to look at, in situations where DHHLʻs needs would be directly impacting the ability for meaningful restoration of flow, to look at redirecting where we get our water from.”

“Thereʻs no priority among the four public trust uses, but we recognize we are an off stream use,” said Dr. Scheuer. “That said, Iʻm not convinced, when you look at the picture big enough, and particularly, if you include in this discussion–whether uses, and uses are reasonable, beneficial, and the opportunity to use diverted water to essentially grow more water –whether weʻre reaching that point yet, where we have to talk about reducing or eliminating DHHLʻs needs as a way of getting to the outcome of abundance, I believe every party is seeking.”

Photo from 2019 showing Kawela Dam draining Kawela Stream dry. File photo 2019, PC: Earthjusice.

Kawela and neighboring streams have been diverted since the early 1900s to provide water to plantations and ranches on the more arid west end of the island, which is now owned by a hotel operator based in Singapore but still called “Moloka‘i Ranch,” according to Earthjustice.  “Water Commission staff reports show that in recent years, the Ranch has consistently diverted around nine times the amount of water actually used,” according to the environmental law firm.

“Our Kūpuna teach us that water is life, and that you never take more than you need of anything,” said Moloka‘i Nō Ka Heke member Timmy Leong of Kawela in an Earthjustice press release.  “In my lifetime I’ve watched Kawela and the wetlands dry up, and it’s time to put the water back where it belongs.”

Acting on Moloka‘i Nō Ka Heke’s requests, the Water Commission on Tuesday established a minimum flow standard for Kawela Stream to ensure that only the very highest flows can be diverted. 

Commissioners said they aim to fully restore Kawela Stream within one year, but in the meantime, flow will be restored to begin the process of rehabilitating Kawela Stream, its wetlands, and nearshore aquatic environment. 

“The Ahupua‘a of Kawela, during the peak of its time, had some of the best managed and abundant fresh water resources on the island,” said Moloka‘i Nō Ka Heke member Teave Heen of Kawela.  “Kawela needs to flow, not just for the health of the fish and limu, but for the health of the people who live the subsistence lifestyle, and the overall health of the ‘āina itself.”

Near the dry Kawela river mouth, an area called Kakaha‘ia—formerly an inland fishpond and now a National Wildlife Refuge for rare wetland birds—has shrunk significantly over time, reducing available habitat for protected species, according to Earthjustice.  The firm expects that the return of daily stream flow will assist in revitalizing Kakaha‘ia and other nearby wetlands.

Dry streambed at mouth of Kawela Stream. PC: 2019 courtesy Earthjustice.

“The Moloka‘i community saw that something was wrong here, and as it turns out, it was much more out of balance than we could have ever imagined,” said Earthjustice attorney Mahesh Cleveland in the release.  “Diverting nine times the water you use is egregiously wasteful, and must never be allowed to happen.  Now that the Commission has at least partially protected Kawela on paper, it just needs to make sure that the diverter will honor its obligations.”

Moloka‘i Nō Ka Heke member Lohiao Paoa of Kawela maintains that the Ranch doesn’t need the amount of water being diverted. “We know from the Ranch’s own data that the west end’s needs can be met without taking any water from Kawela.  We thank the Commission for keeping full restoration on the table, but we know there is much more work to be done,” said Paoa.

A view of Molokai’s Kawela ahupua’a (gulch) looking south. File photo credit: The Nature Conservancy.

Timeline:

  • May 2015: CWRM staff begins conducting field work related to Molokaʻi mountain water system
  • Nov. 2018: USGS installs low-flow continuous monitoring station on East Kawela (16415000)
  • July 2019: Earthjustice files a Complaint-Dispute resolution to petition to amend in stream flow standards and allegation of waste complaint
  • Aug. 2020: Commission approves adding USGS 16415000 to the long-term USGS cooperative agreement
  • Jan. 2021: CWRM staff issues additional request for information
  • Feb. 2021: Response to CDR from Molokaʻi Properties
  • Feb. 2021: CWRM staff issues additional request for information
  • April 2021: Response to request for information from Molokaʻi Properties
  • July 2021: CWRM staff issues additional request for information
  • Oct. 2021: Response to request for information from Molokaʻi Properties
  • Feb. 2022: CWRM staff briefs commission on issue
  • March 2022:
    • Molokaʻi Properties approves ROE for USGS to install real-time stream monitoring station.
    • CWRM staff recommends management actions to address portions of complaint; commission differs upon request from Molokaʻi Properties.

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