Maui Streams Flow Again

Some water diverted to plantations put back in native streams

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After years of essentially being drained dry and left for dead, two legendary streams on the Hawaiian island of Maui came back to life this week, thanks to the work of Earthjustice.

The streams were diverted over a hundred years ago to irrigate sugar cane and pineapple plantations. Over time sugar and pineapple have faded in the islands, succumbing to cheaper foreign competition. This freed up the water to restore the streams.

But the old plantation companies have other ideas. They want to develop the farmlands and bank and sell the diverted stream water. To them the water is the key to cashing in with McMansions, condos, resorts, and shopping centers, all fueled by "free" stream water.

On the other side, Native Hawaiian and local communities have waited to restore the streams and the interconnected wetland taro patches that produce a staple food as old as Hawaiian civilization. Earthjustice attorneys took the case to the state water commission and won a ruling that some of the stream water must be restored. The ruling didn’t begin to go far enough and has been appealed to the courts. But it marked the beginning of the end of the plantations’ water monopoly. The commission ordered the restoration of some flows to Waihe’e River and Waiehu Stream, two of the four major waters in Central Maui.

When the fateful day came, the plantation diverters allowed some of the water to once again take its natural course. Every year brief downpours of heavy rains would temporarily make the streams flow again which helped retain the original streambed. Now, in the middle of summer, fresh clean water from West Maui’s mountains once again flowed to the sea breathing life into the plants and animals along the way. For the first time in more than a century, and after six years of legal battles, the community saw the streams come back to life.

The restored water recalled a similar water battle fought by Earthjustice 15 years prior on the island of O’ahu. In that case, native streams were eventually restored by court order after plantations stopped using it on cane and pineapples. And on O’ahu, as on Maui, the powers that be fought stream restoration tooth and nail. They tried as hard as they could to bank the water for, surprise! – development on former farmlands.

On Maui, the plantation companies are not going quietly. They have so far refused to provide all the water they were ordered to restore. One company is even resorting to scorched earth tactics, allowing some residents with priority water rights who had been receiving water though the plantation ditch system to be cut off, and refusing to cooperate to find a solution. The truth is the plantation companies easily have more than enough water to both restore the streams and supply these residents. Earthjustice will stay at it until these problems are addressed. In the courts and in the community, we will not rest until justice, and the waters of Maui rivers and streams, flow once again for present and future generations.

Visit Earthjustice’s Restore Stream Flow webpage to view a photo slideshow of the restoration of Waihe`e River and Waiehu Stream, and to learn more about this issue.

John was Earthjustice’s Media Director and chief press wrangler from 2001 until 2013. He came to Earthjustice in 2001 to defend freshwaters and public land—and salmon.