Maui News

Under landmark decision, state will now manage West Maui water resources

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An aerial of West Maui is shown. PC: State DLNR archive

After a flood of passionate debate over West Maui water rights, state water commissioners voted unanimously this afternoon to designate the Lahaina Aquifer Sector as a Surface Water and Ground Water Management Area.

The landmark decision means the state will now manage surface and ground water in important West Maui areas. As a result, existing and potential water users will have to go through a state permitting process.

Capping more than six hours of heated testimony and discussion, the state Department of Land and Natural Resources’ Commission on Water Resource Management voted 7-0 to approve the designation. 

It covers the areas of Honokōhau, Honolua, Honokahua, Kahana, Honokōwai, Wahikuli, Kahoma, Kaua‘ula, Launiupoko, Olowalu, Ukumehame Surface Water Hydrologic Units and the Honokōhau, Honolua, Honokōwai, Launiupoko, Olowalu, and Ukumehame Groundwater Hydrologic Units.

Supporters, including Native Hawaiian groups and individuals, said that more state oversight is needed to manage precious resources, which are being drained by private purveyors. 

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Opponents, including the County of Maui, said the decision is being rushed and it disregards county collaboration and Maui County’s own Water Use and Development Plan. Some said affordable housing projects could be hampered and obtaining water meters could be halted.

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State water commission staff, though, said the county Water Department represents only a small portion of the Lahaina purveyors. Major water supply systems include Kapalua Water Co., Maui County Department of Water Supply, Hawaii Water Service Co., Launiupoko Water Co. and Olowalu Water Co.

Maui’s water department accounts for only 23% of total water use, and the county has no jurisdiction over private companies, according to Aaron Strauch, commission hydrologist.

“The argument that we should work just with the county doesn’t alleviate the problem that we have multiple systems that are not managed by the county, and the county to some extent is at the mercy of some of these other systems,” he said. 

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In recommending designation, state water commission staff has said that water resources are threatened due to rainfall declines and other factors, which leaves less surface water to meet demands.

Commission Deputy Director Kaleo Manuel acknowledged today that the panel is taking an unprecedented approach to water resource management.

“It’s an unprecedented action in the context that the commission is taking a holistic, a proactive and a precautionary approach to water resource management and that the commission hasn’t historically done,” he said.

In the past, the commission has taken “reactive” steps based on community petitions, he added. But now, in light of climate change, the state must act swiftly and make bold decisions. 

“I really do believe that this is . . . a great opportunity to shift the way that we manage resources as a commission in the State of Hawaiʻi,” Manuel said.

Kehaulani Cerizo
Kehaulani Cerizo was born and raised on Maui and worked for nearly 15 years as a news reporter, copy editor and features editor at daily newspapers. She earned awards at The Maui News in Wailuku and at Today’s Local News in San Diego.
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