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Hard Taro, Hard Times

A century ago, most of the water that supported Native Hawaiian communities, their taro patches, and their fisheries on the east side of O`ahu was diverted to the central part of the island to grow sugar. When Big Sugar pulled up stakes decades later, a mighty struggle ensued. Should the water go to restore what was lost, or be used for golf courses and expensive crops? Author and historian Tom Turner tells the tale.

If a culture can revolve around a single food plant, Native Hawaiians and taro -- or, as it's known in Hawaiian, kalo -- would probably be the best example.

Its leaves (called lu'au) taste like spinach when cooked. Its starchy, root-like corm is wonderfully nutritious. A favored way to eat the corm is to peel it, scrape it, boil it, and pound it into the purple, sticky substance called poi. Poi is said to be better for you than wheat, potatoes, rice, or any other starch people rely on. It grows throughout the tropics and, according to some sources, is the staple of more people than any other single food.

The most prized taro, which tastes best and lasts longest, grows in rice-paddy-like places that in Hawai’i are called lo'i. Fresh, cold water is diverted from natural streams into one lo'i, then redirected to another before being returned to the stream. Taro reaches maturity in about a year and is easily regenerated. When Captain Cook visited the Islands in 1778, he guessed that there were about 200,000 acres of taro patches scattered throughout the wet, windward sides of the islands. By the early 1990s, that number had fallen by 99.8 percent, to a paltry 400 acres.

The principal culprit was sugar. Sugar?

That's right, sugar. In the early part of the twentieth century, large businesses struck a deal with the federal government of the United States (Hawai'i was a territory; it would not become a state until 1959). The U.S. would allow the export of sugar to the states from Hawai’i duty-free; the U.S. in return would gain permanent access to Pearl Harbor for a Navy base. The sugar growers then bought large tracts of land in the dry central plains of several islands. All they needed was water. Lots of water.

On O'ahu, they built an elaborate system of tunnels and flumes, reservoirs and penstocks, collectively known as the Waiahole Ditch; many similar systems were built on the other islands. The ditch collected rainwater from the windward side of the Ko'olau range of mountains, water that naturally ran down several streams, irrigated extensive fields of taro, then emptied into Kane'ohe Bay, an estuary rich in fish and other sea life.

The change caused by the ditch was rapid and dramatic. Taro fields dried up. Streams lost 90 percent of their water. Fish and other species native to the streams and the estuary all but disappeared. The tiny communities that dotted the windward valleys shrank as people moved away.

But at the end of the century, Big Sugar pulled up stakes and moved to the Philippines and Southeast Asia where labor was cheaper and water abundant. A battle royal ensued over what to do with the Waiahole Ditch water.

Developers wanted it for golf courses, resorts, and agribusiness on short-term leases. The Navy wanted more water for its installation at Pearl Harbor. Honolulu wanted water to serve new residents and businesses. These demands could be met by pumping groundwater, but that would be more expensive than using water diverted from windward streams.

The family farmers and Hawaiians who remained near Kane'ohe Bay, who were very astute and well organized, saw a chance to reclaim the water for the streams and the estuary. They started by pushing through an amendment to the state constitution that established a statewide water management commission to protect and restore surface and groundwater throughout the Islands. They then enlisted the services of Earthjustice's Arnold Lum and Marjorie Ziegler, who in 1988 petitioned the water commission to assume management of surface and groundwater on windward O'ahu, hoping to force a return of Waiahole water to the windward side of the island.

The commission conducted exhaustive evidentiary hearings over seven months, and heard from well over a hundred witnesses, many of them experts from around the country in subjects ranging from parasitology to water reclamation to agricultural economics.  The hearings pitted Earthjustice's clients against Hawai’i's most powerful private interests, who were joined by the county, state, and federal governments in their opposition to restoring windward streams.  The commission's resulting plan for sharing the water between the competing interests short-changed the Hawaiians and small farmers, now represented by Earthjustice attorney Paul Achitoff, so they appealed the case to the state Supreme Court, in the first of at least two trips to that body. In a landmark 2000 ruling, the Court instructed the commission to go back to the drawing board and better safeguard the public's interest in the water. As of 2005, when this is being written, the Waiahole petition is back before the water commission for yet more proceedings, with Achitoff now joined by Kaua'i-born attorney Kapua Sproat.

On the ground, and in the streams, however, there have been dramatic changes. In 1994, more than a half-dozen years after the cane fields were abandoned and thanks to a fierce legal battle waged by the Windward activists and Earthjustice attorneys, some of the natural water was returned to Waiahole Stream. Taro patches were replanted and native fish and crustaceans began slowly to recolonize the stream. Kane'ohe Bay slowly began to recover as well. The leaders of the restoration movement invited people from across the islands to come spend an hour or an afternoon pulling taro, cutting weeds, sharing a meal, and getting muddy. The rebirth of Windward O'ahu was well underway.