How Maui’s Wildfire Sparked a Disaster Capitalist Power Grab for Hawaiʻi’s Public Water
The battle over fresh water resources on the Hawaiian Islands is as old as the colonialist mindset that fuels it.
On August 8, 2023, massive wildfires raged through the historic West Maui town of Lahaina. Once upon a time, Lahaina was a vibrant and productive wetland community central to Native Hawaiian culture and commerce, known as the “Venice of the Pacific.” Excessive water diversions by plantations and land developers with colonial roots turned Lahaina into a desert overrun by dry invasive grasses. More than a century of water and land mismanagement, in addition to drought worsened by climate change, set the conditions for the most devastating wildfire in the history of Hawai‘i and the entire United States in more than a century. As recovery efforts begin, the fight for who controls Maui’s waters is rearing its head.
To understand what is happening in the aftermath of the unprecedented wildfires in Lahaina, it is important to understand the history of water law and policy in Hawai‘i. For those who have visited Lahaina, it may be hard to imagine, but in the 1850’s Lahaina was verdant. The royal capitol of the Hawaiian Kingdom, this town bustled amid rivers and waterways with an actively managed fishpond in the center. Streams were understood then to be the lifeblood of the communities that grew up around them.
As the 19th century waned, plantation barons grabbed land and water across the islands, then conspired to illegally overthrow the Hawaiian nation. Their monocrop plantations of pineapple and sugarcane spread across the Hawaiian Islands, and most streams were so extensively diverted that the streambeds were dry most of the time. For Lahaina, this meant the fishpond and the wetlands eventually turned to dirt. In place of native lowland forests, a variety of highly invasive and flammable grasses and brush took over.
At the turn of the 20th century, Native Hawaiians faced a rolling mass extinction event in the form of a pandemic, economic invasion, political coup, and widespread displacement happening all around the same time. As plantations drained rivers and streams dry for private profit, traditional Hawaiian society and culture suffered. But under both customary and contemporary law, water is a public trust that belongs to the people, including generations yet unborn.
The modern movement to restore water as a public trust began with the Hawai‘i Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice Richardson. The court ruled in the McBryde case in 1973 that the state and its people had an interest in river flows diverted by two plantations. This historic decision was part of a cultural and legal renaissance leading to the establishment of the public trust doctrine in Hawai‘i’s constitution in 1978, and the water code and water commission in 1987.
Fast forward to the 1990’s, and many of the plantation companies have converted into real estate companies specializing in luxury subdivisions and resorts. The water for the landscaping, golf courses, swimming pools, and decorative fountains for these new developments was the water previously used to irrigate sugar and pineapple — that is, the water taken from Hawaiians, sometimes by force, by plantation barons a century earlier.
For Lahaina, this meant that millions of gallons of water a day were diverted from the highest reaches of their streams and sent to luxury homes and resort hotels on either side of Lahaina for their non-potable water uses. Diverting that much water for such an extended time meant that Lahaina itself evolved into a desert. Native Hawaiians who endured on their ancestral homes lived along streambeds that were dry most of the time.
To address this imbalance and injustice, the mostly working-class community of Maui Komohana came together over a multi-year effort to support the state Water Commission in establishing instream flow standards (IFSs) and designating their ground and surface water resources as a Water Management Area (WMA). The large private land and water companies strongly opposed these efforts because it would foster public transparency and accountability and curtail greedy private diversions. The Maui Komohana community secured their historic WMA designation last summer, and the first permit applications for Maui Komohana’s newly protected water resources were due to the water commission on Monday August 7th, one day before the devastating wildfires.
In a series of letters sent to the Chair of the Department of Land and Natural Resources between August 9 and 11, one of the big landowners and private water diverters in the area, West Maui Land Co. (which bought out Pioneer Mill, a sugar plantation in Lahaina established in 1860), insinuated that the water commission’s deputy director prevented them from taking more water to fight the fires. This is dishonest because the West Maui Land Co.’s reservoirs are not connected to the county’s fire hydrant system, and the helicopters were grounded due to high winds.
The Governor responded by falsely accusing community members for opposing the use of water to fight fires, suspending the state Water Code, and signaling his intent to reverse the designation of the Maui Komohana Water Management Area and make changes to the Water Code next legislative session. This blitzkrieg attack culminated in the ousting of Kaleo Manuel, the most diligent and respected water deputy to date. He is the longest serving water deputy and the first of Native Hawaiian ancestry.
At the same time, on the east side of Maui, the Attorney General filed an action before the Hawai‘i Supreme Court blaming the environmental court’s recent ruling in favor of community efforts to restore instream flows as the cause of the fires in that region. Their argument is blatant and shameful opportunism. The County of Maui filed a motion clarifying that more water in the east Maui reservoirs (that are operated by Alexander & Baldwin, a former plantation company, and Mahi Pono, a farming company) would not have helped fight any of the fires on Maui in August.
Thankfully communities from across Hawai‘i are coming together now in solidarity for Lahaina and for our public trust water resources. Learn more about the movement to return water to Hawaiʻi’s streams across the islands.
Based out of our Mid-Pacific office, Elena Bryant is a senior associate attorney.
Established in 1988, Earthjustice's Mid-Pacific Office, located in Honolulu, Hawaiʻi, works on a broad range of environmental and community health issues, including to ensure water is a public trust and to achieve a cleaner energy future.