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Flows Restored To Waimea River And “Grand Canyon of the Pacific”

Historic agreement approved by the State of Hawai‘i’s Commission on Water Resource Management

will end wasteful plantation-era water diversions

HONOLULU — On April 18, 2017, the State of Hawai‘i’s Commission on Water Resource Management approved a historic agreement that resolves a complaint Earthjustice filed in July 2013 on behalf of community group Pō‘ai Wai Ola/West Kaua‘i Watershed Alliance to protect the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific” and restore stream flows to the Waimea River on Kaua‘i Island.


The agreement concludes a year-long mediation involving Pō‘ai Wai Ola, the state-run Agribusiness Development Corporation, the Kekaha Agriculture Association, the Department of Hawaiian Homelands, and the Kaua‘i Island Utility Cooperative. Under the agreement, tens of millions of gallons of water each day will be restored to the Waimea River and its headwaters, and no diversion will ever be a total diversion again.


“Our group’s name acknowledges the life-giving power of water,” explained Pō‘ai Wai Ola president Galen Kaohi.  “Today’s agreement ensures that, for the first time in over 100 years, life-giving water will once again flow continuously in Waimea River from mauka (the mountains) to makai (the sea), which is vital for the health of the river and our community.”


Beginning in the early 1900s, the Kekaha Sugar Plantation built the Kekaha and Kōke‘e ditch systems, which diverted much of the water flowing down the Waimea River and its tributaries to grow sugar.


When the plantation went out of business in 2001, the State of Hawai‘i took over the ditch network. The Hawai‘i Agribusiness Development Corporation leased the ditch network and lands to the Kekaha Agriculture Association. But, although the association was cultivating only a fraction of the previous plantation land, and growing much less water-intensive crops, the diversions remained at plantation-era levels, leaving vast stretches of dry stream bed in the Waimea River and headwater streams.


Proceedings before the Water Commission revealed that the association was diverting far more water than was needed for agriculture and, instead, was using this public trust resource to feed an antiquated hydropower system that helped subsidize its operations. And much of the water was simply wasted.


This agreement will end that waste and other useless diversions, with precious water promptly restored to re-establish continuous flows in the Waimea River and its headwaters. The agreement guarantees the minimum stream flows that are necessary for native stream life and traditional native Hawaiian practices and creates a framework to allow future, beneficial environmental and cultural projects. Under the agreement, the Kaua‘i Island Utility Cooperative can, for instance, move toward developing a modern hydropower project that will use solar power to pump water uphill during the day, releasing it to generate power at night, and will provide water and other infrastructure to facilitate native Hawaiian homesteading.


“For too long, private interests have been allowed to take the public’s water and use it to reap private profits,” said Earthjustice attorney David Henkin, who represents Pō‘ai Wai Ola. “In approving this agreement, the Water Commission is carrying out its constitutional and statutory mandate to protect the public trust, ensuring that the mighty waters of the Waimea River will once again flow from the mountains to the sea, for the benefit of present and future generations.”


Read the May 3, 2017 Guest Opinion letter in The Garden Island, written by the Board of Directors of Pō‘ai Wai Ola/West Kaua‘i Watershed Alliance.

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