A Call for Stream Restoration

Photo by Catherine Cluett Pactol

A group of Molokai residents gathered at Kawela Stream last week Monday in support of restoring stream flow that has been diverted for nearly 100 years by Molokai Ranch. Legal action was filed the same day by environmental law firm Earthjustice, on behalf of community group Molokai No Ka Heke, before the state Commission on Water Resource Management. The petition requests removal of unused or wasteful diversions on Kawela, Kaunakakai, Manuwainui and Waikolu streams, and the formal abandonment and cleanup of dams, along with restoration of the island’s stream flows which supply the aquifer.

“The water belongs to this place, this ‘aina, and the people,” said kupuna Opu’ulani Albino. “There has never been community process or the procedures that give us the opportunity to give our mana’o like we’re doing here…. This is a place, Kawela, is a famous battle ground… the most powerful wars culminated here. We will continue that war, just to live.”

Molokai No Ka Heke leader Walter Ritte said when they visited the Kawela stream site in the mountains two weeks ago, “there was no water coming over the dam.” He described the stream as dry but the reservoir was full.

Photo courtesy of Walter Ritte

Ritte said the damn was built by Molokai Ranch in 1923. With the Ranch now up for sale, he wanted to take this opportunity to “shine the light on this issue.”

“We’re going to make sure that the water commission does the right thing with the water and as much as possible puts it back in the stream, unless there are legitimate needs for it over in west Molokai,” said Earthjustice Associate Attorney Mahesh Cleveland. “[It puts] the Ranch and any potential buyers on notice that the water isn’t just there for the taking.”

Five of the Ranch’s seven diversions historically installed to bring water to the Ranch’s west end infrastructure have long been abandoned, according to Earthjustice, a national nonprofit organization with Hawaii offices. Now, with Molokai Ranch’s operations mostly shut down, the organization believes there is no justification to retain all the diversions.

“We’ve asked asked the Commission to instruct the Ranch to formally abandon and clean up those diversions and only use the remaining two diversions to the extent that is justifiable in balance with the controlling rights of the people,” explained Cleveland.

Kawela, Kaunakakai, and Manawainui Streams flow from the island’s lush mountain range to the south shore, while Waikolu Stream flows to the north shore. All four streams feed groundwater aquifers that are the island’s sole source of drinking water, as well as the south shore reef and fishponds that are a key traditional food source for residents.

With his infant son on his arm, Kawela resident Lohiao Paoa explained why this is important to him.

“Returning the water to Kawela ahupua’a will bring back life that it once had before,” he said. “It was known to provide for our people in the past, and it’s a crucial part of Molokai’s water future. Kawela Stream deserves respect.”

Photo by Catherine Cluett Pactol

Residents and attorneys stressed this isn’t a protest or an attempt to cut off water to west Molokai, but simply a unified effort to minimize water waste and restore natural stream flow.

Leinaʻala Ley, Earthjustice senior associate attorney, said the goals of the petition, which is more than 50 pages long, are three-fold.

First, she said the Commission needs to set a benchmark for how much water should be in the stream.

“Although the Ranch declared certain water uses in 1988, there was no real followup by the commission to find out if the Ranch is actually using that water,” she said. “They’ve never set standards of what is the minimum amount of water that we need in the stream that’s going to protect the public trust uses… The Commission needs to set what is that amount of water that we need in the stream.”

Secondly, Earthjustice’s filing asks Molokai Ranch to show how much water it’s actually using.

“…The Ranch has the burden under the law to be accountable to show the people where is the water going, what are we doing with it, do we actually need it, and to this day, that’s never been done,” she explained. “These huge reservoirs… they’re just sitting there and why are they full of water if the Ranch doesn’t actually need that water, what is that water doing up there?”

She said the third goal is to make sure the regulations already in place to manage water resources are being followed.

“The Ranch, since 2004, has only reported its water use for 11 months out of those past 15 years and the rest of the time, the Commission has been deprived of the information that would let us know what is going on with these waters,” she said. “We’re asking the commission that it needs to enforce its own regulation and obtain the information so it can do its job, which is to make sure enough water is in the streams….”

With the petition filed on Monday, July 1, Cleveland said it’s now a matter of waiting for the Commission to take action. Studying the streams and establishing proper stream levels could take time, but petitioners hope it will be the first step to get the water flowing again.


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