The State of Hawaiʻi Commission on Water Resource Management has unanimously restored Molokaʻi’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 Molokaʻi Nō Ka Heke, a community group advocating for protection of Kawela and other streams, formally requested stream restoration in the summer of 2019.
“After over a hundred years of Kawela waters being diverted across the island and wasted, we finally said enough is enough,” said Molokaʻi Nō Ka Heke member and longtime aloha ʻāina Walter Ritte. “The big ranching and ag operations are gone, and we couldn’t just sit and watch this precious water be thrown away.”
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 “Molokaʻi Ranch.” Water Commission staff reports show that in recent years, the Ranch has consistently diverted around nine times the amount of water actually used.
“Our Kūpuna teach us that water is life, and that you never take more than you need of anything,” said Molokaʻi Nō Ka Heke member Timmy Leong of Kawela. “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 Molokaʻi 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 Ahupuaʻa of Kawela, during the peak of its time, had some of the best managed and abundant fresh water resources on the island,” said Molokaʻi 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 ʻāina itself.”
Near the dry Kawela river mouth, an area called Kakahaʻia — 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. The return of daily stream flow is expected to assist in revitalizing Kakahaʻia and other nearby wetlands.
“The Molokaʻi 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. “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.”
“Kawela Stream really should be fully restored, because the data shows that the Ranch doesn’t need anywhere near the amount of water it diverts,” said Molokaʻi Nō Ka Heke member Lohiao Paoa of Kawela. “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.”
Molokaʻi Nō Ka Heke anticipates further Commission action on these water resource issues throughout 2022. The Water Commission has given Molokaʻi Ranch 180 days to propose plans to fully restore Kawela Stream.