‘Ration your water’: Maui’s plantation-era water system is maxed out

For generations, Keeaumoku Kapu’s family has lived at the bottom of the Kaauula Valley, nestled in the foothills that rise above Launiupoko.

He can trace his ancestry’s roots back into the land for over 170 years, and his family has always relied on the Kaauula Creek that runs through the valley to raise pigs and grow taro and other foods they need to survive. .

For more than a century, his family’s most important neighbor was a sugar cane plantation, the Pioneer Mill, which operated a system of irrigation ditches that used water from the creek for its crops – until that the early 21st century when the business closed and sold the land to a developer.

West Maui Land, the developer, created its own drinking water and irrigation utilities and took control of the century-old irrigation ditch system. He diverted water from the creek to a series of pipes and reservoirs to irrigate his housing estate. AAs part of a legal settlement, it was also necessary to use this same diversion system to provide water to families like the Kapus.

A photo of taro growing in the Kaauula Valley
For generations, families have cultivated taro in the Kaauula Valley. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

Competing needs

In the years that followed, the developer built hundreds of homes, many of which spanned multimillion-dollar estates with swimming pools, grassy lawns, and lush landscaping. The demand for water has skyrocketed. Then, in 2018, the state told the developer’s irrigation company that it needed to conserve more water in the creek, leaving it without a sufficient supply to meet demand.

But the company did not fully comply with that order, according to the state. So just before Easter weekend, facing fines of up to $5,000 a day, the irrigation company stopped taking water from the creek. He told his clients that there would be no more irrigation water and that the ditch which is the only source of running water for Kapu’s family and two other people in the area has dried up.

“What really struck us was that none of us received notice,” Kapu said. “We went into frantic emergency mode, contacted families and texted everyone, ‘ration your water.'”

Nearly 70 people, ages 2 to 74, suddenly lost the only source of running water for their crops, livestock, showers, toilets and other household needs, Kapu said.

A photo of Keeaumoku Kapu's granddaughter on their land in the Kaauula Valley
Many of Keeaumoku Kapu’s grandchildren live on his property, which lost water last week. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

As Kapu rushed to help his neighbors, his lawyer sued Launiupoko Irrigation Co., the private irrigation company responsible for running the system.

This week, 2nd Circuit Judge Kirstin Hamman temporarily ordered Launiupoko Irrigation to restore water to families and farmers at nearby schools in Kamehameha who depend on the creek.

The state Commission on Water Resources Management also told the irrigation company earlier this week it must provide 300,000 gallons a day to families and farmers for the next 90 days, while regulators were trying to figure out what to do next.

“I wake up pretty much every day wondering if I have water,” said Gunars Valkirs, who runs a chocolate farm on the Kamehameha Schools property that depends on water from Kaauula Creek, to state regulators in a meeting on Tuesday. “That’s how I live these days.”

The dilemma highlights a stark reality: there is not enough water flowing through the century-old irrigation system to meet the needs of all who depend on it.

The stream needs a certain level of water to stay healthy, as well as the plants and animals that depend on it. Next, Hawaiian families and farmers on the Kamehameha Schools property need water from the creek, as do residents of the 400-home development below.

An increasingly common situation

The irrigation company says it would prefer to pump water from the wells rather than the stream, but argues that would require charging customers higher tariffs to cover its expenses. He is in the process of asking state regulators for permission to do so.

“This situation is dire,” Glenn Tremble of Launiupoko Irrigation told the national water commission during the meeting. “Users are in competition with each other.”

The company did not respond to a request for additional comment.

It’s a situation that some regulators fear will become increasingly common in the coming years. As the state sought to better protect Hawaii’s waterways, it in some cases ended plantation-era waterway diversions, ordering companies to restore waterway flow.

At the same time, the state says rainfall has decreased significantly over the past few decades, and water resources experts fear that as the climate crisis unfolds, the islands will increasingly face drought, leaving even less water in the waterways to draw from.

“This is not the first of these problems that we will face,” Mike Buck, a member of the Water Resources Stewardship Commission, told his peers at the meeting earlier this week. “Water is over-allocated, there is not enough water, and historical expectations for how much water is available will simply not be there in the future.”

“It’s just the reality that we all have to face,” he continued.

Community members are concerned that there is not enough water to support all of the proposed development in West Maui. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

A public trust

In Hawaii, water is protected as a public good — unlike other states, water rights cannot be bought or sold. Instead, the state is responsible for protecting and conserving water resources for the benefit of all its inhabitants.

Kapu’s ancestors were among the Hawaiian farmers who originally obtained land during the Great Mahele, the historic 19th-century land division that for the first time allowed private property in Hawaii.

As a young adulthis father would drive him high in the valley to where the Kauaulu Creek met the dam that supplied water to the plantation’s old irrigation ditches.

For decades, they have taken on the responsibility of clearing debris from ditches to ensure the water continues to flow well. After heavy rains, they would remove silt and rocks from the dam, so water continued to flow into the diversion: a large concrete structure that absorbs water from the stream and directs it through sluices either to the stream, or towards a ditch that carries water. down to Kapu land and the reservoirs that irrigate the subdivision below.

Keeaumoku Kapu’s family has for years helped clear debris from irrigation ditches that provide water. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

But that changed when the plantation closed and the developer took over, he said. Over the years, his family had had disputes with their new neighbor – nearly two decades ago, for example, the two sides reached an agreement that the developer should continue to supply water to Kapu.

Hawaiian courts and government regulators have long ruled that landowners who originally obtained property during the Grand Mahele, known as kuleana usershave access rights to water for agricultural practices and the cultivation of taro.

Launiupoko Irrigation announced to customers last week that it would no longer supply water for irrigation, according to notices sent to customers and shared with Civil Beat. But for now, by order of the state, the irrigation company has yet to provide water to families and farmers whose only source of water is the stream, and over the next few months is expected to work with state regulators, farmers and families love Kapu for finding a solution.

What’s happening now isn’t working, Kapu said. Five years ago his family had enough water to grow nine plots of taro which he used to provide food for weddings, funerals and other celebrations in the community. Now he can barely keep up with the pace of two and a half years.

Earlier this week he stood next to his taro fields, indicating a patch of dry land, where his family raised pigs. There’s not enough water for that anymore.

“We don’t even have enough water to fight the fire,” he said.

Coverage of Maui County by Civil Beat is funded in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation and the Fred Baldwin Memorial Foundation.

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