POSTED: 9 FEBRUARY 2004 - 12:00pm HST

Water Diversion as a Way of Life

Upstream on the Hanapepe River in 2002

"Water water see the water flow
glancing dancing see the water flow
o wizard of changes water water water
dark or silvery mother of life
water water holy mystery - heaven's daughter
god made a song when the world was new
water's laughter sings it true
o wizard of changes, teach me the lesson of flowing"

1968 The Incredible String Band

A book I recommend to anyone interested in the history of water diversion in Hawaii is Sugar Water: Hawaii's Plantation Ditches by Carol Wilcox: 1996 published by University of Hawaii Press [ISBN 0-8248-1783-4]. Here are a few quotes...

"The Hawaiian subsistence economy was based on taro production. Taro was the staple of the hawaiian diet and at the core of its culture and religion. The work it took to grow taro, to develop and maintain the irrigation systems and terraces known as "lo`i", was shared by the entire community."

later,in reference to the time after the plantations had diverted much of the valley water on the island, the book speaks of the impact...

"A degree of despair, fatalism, and chaos must have characterized those times. Large numbers of Hawaiians left their traditional homes in the rural areas. By the time of sugar's ascendancy, when the large water projects were diverting water away from the valleys and their villages, these villages did not have the population, organization, or will to protest."

Wailua Falls in 1908 before Lihue Plantation reduced it to a fraction of its natural flow.

The book, Sugar Water, goes on to detail the history of the construction of ditches, tunnels and reservoirs throughout Hawaii. Here is another quote in reference to Kauai.

"If there is such a thing as too much success, the Koula Tunnel is surely an example. For many decades, both upstream user Makaweli Plantation (now Gay & Robinson) and downstream user McBryde Sugar between them diverted essentially all the water from the Hanapepe River, so that the mouth of the river was usually dry."

One thing is clear, the way the plantations engineered their water diversion projects was to take all the water they wanted and let the overflow go back to its natural course. Often there was no overflow. Typically, all of a stream's flow was diverted and a spillway was created over which "excess" water flowed back to the original streambed. This is how water in the lower portion of the Hanapepe River is taken to feed the Kauai Coffee Company fields (once McBryde Sugar).

There is a spillway on the Hanapepe River (right below the end of the cliff when viewed from the Kamalii Highway Hanapepe Valley Lookout) that diverts the entire Hanapepe River into private hands. Usuualy so much water is taken upstream that the river water never crests the spillway. The only water returned to the river at this location is a small break in the concrete spillway that an adult can step over that permits a rivulet of water to escape. Today, the Hanapepe River is a shadow of its former self.

This is ass-backwards. This was demonstrated in 2000 when the Hawaiian Supreme Court ruled that diverted waters on Oahu should be returned to their natural streambeds and that the public and environmental concerns would supercede the historic private agricultural interests.

It is clear that our valleys are the source of life's diversity on these islands. It is time that the state compel the private business interests that monopolize water today put in place new management priorities. Where and if necessary this may require the re-engineering or even dismantling of water diversion systems to ensure that our valleys are healthy.

Farmers and Politicians Make A Case for the Waiahole Ditch

by David K. Choo, as printed Hawaii Business

If a tree falls in the forest, and no one hears it, does it make a sound? And if a stream flows through a valley and into the sea, and no one uses it, is it wasted water?

The Hawaii Supreme Court hasn't actually heard arguments on the first case. But on Aug. 22, 2000, it handed down a landmark decision on the latter case, an appeal of the Commission on Water Resource Management's 1997 decision to reallocate the water collected by the Waiahole Ditch. For nearly 80 years, the Waiahole Ditch irrigation system had transported water from the Windward to the Leeward side of Oahu. In the 1997 decision, approximately 10 million gallons of water per day (mgd) were reallocated to Windward streams. It was the most comprehensive assessment of water law and the first time in state history that diverted water was returned to streams.

The court's judgment answered both questions along with a myriad other issues that have been in dispute for decades. In the decision, the court reaffirmed the public trust doctrine and the State Constitution saying that the “duty to protect public water resources is a categorical imperative and precondition to all subsequent considerations, for without such underlying protection the natural environment could, at some point, be irrevocably harmed.”

“Realistically, if we hadn't been here, the water would have never been returned,” says Paul Reppun, a Windward farmer and longtime community activist. “But the Supreme Court's decision said that even if farmers hadn't been here in Waiahole with a need for water, there still would be a public interest in maintaining free-flowing streams and near shore waters.”

According to taro farmer and avid fisherman Danny Bishop, the return of Waiahole water almost immediately improved the health of Windward Oahu’s near shore waters.

The Waiahole Ditch irrigation system, constructed from 1913 to 1916, had transported almost 30 mgd of fresh water from rainy Windward Oahu, through the Koolau Mountain Range, to the parched Leeward side of the island and its thirsty sugar cane fields. The diversion of the water fueled the Islands' economy and shaped Oahu's development for nearly 80 years.

For more than 30 years, Windward farmers and community representatives petitioned for a return of water to their streams, but it wasn't until 1993 when the Oahu Sugar Co. announced that it would stop growing sugar cane that the fight for water got serious. The resulting litigation involved many of the largest landowners in the state and nearly every major law firm in Honolulu.

In 1995, attorneys for the various parties involved, hammered out an interim agreement while the Water Commission decided on the final allocation. At that time, more than 10 mgd was put back in the Windward streams, the first time the waters flowed so swiftly in nearly a century.
According to taro farmer and avid fisherman Danny Bishop, the health of Waiahole Stream has improved dramatically since the flow was increased on an interim basis in 1995. Exotic freshwater species of fish were immediately flushed out, clearing the way for native fish and snails. In addition, the area's near shore ecosystem was partially restored, a prime breeding ground for marine life.

“We knew things would improve, but we didn't expect them to improve this much, this fast,” Bishop says. “Ask any longtime fisherman around, and he'll tell you about the improvements. I've never pulled up so many hee (octopus) before. We still have a lot of problems in Kaneohe Bay, but the return of the water isn't one of them any more.”

In December 1997, the Water Commission issued a 250-plus page ruling, increasing the amount of water distributed to Leeward parties by 3.8 mgd. In January 1998, the decision was appealed to the Supreme Court, and more than two years later, the court issued its historic ruling.
“For a long time, there was a perception that water flowing into the ocean was wasted water. The scientists didn't think that was the case and neither did the people who fished the waters of Kaneohe Bay, and now the Supreme Court sees the value of free-flowing streams,” says D. Kapua Sproat, attorney for Earthjustice, which represented a coalition of community groups and filed the appeal to the Supreme Court.

In December 2001, the Water Commission issued another decision regarding Waiahole water. Shortly thereafter, Sproat filed another appeal to the Supreme Court. While every decision is crucial to the parties involved, Sproat believes that the long battle for Waiahole water may be near an end. “I fully expect that after the next decision, there will be more issues that will be remanded back to the Water Commission,” Sproat says. “But the initial decision covered so much ground, I think many of the issues have been settled.”