Maui Hikina - Lo'i kalo growing strong

Maui Hikina is famous for its abundant fields of lo’i kalo (wetland taro) that provided healthy food for residents, habitat for native stream life, and buffers from flash flooding.

ʻOiʻoi ‘o Maui Hikina – Maui Hikina forges ahead. This saying heralds the resilience and independence of this renowned community, which has resisted the decimation of its wai and practices under the totemic traditions of moʻo – sacred reptilian water deities – since time immemorial. Communities in the northeast region of Maui, known as Maui Hikina, have revered and safeguarded their stream and groundwater resources, as reflected in totemic traditions of mo‘o (legendary reptilian water deities), as well as customary laws governing the management of water.

Maui Hikina was historically renowned for its fully self-sustaining economy, equal to or greater than any other wetland kalo (taro) growing landscapes in Hawai‘i nei.

Maui Hikina - East Maui Irrigation circa 1870

Sugar cane plantation circa 1870, required a lot of hard labor and diverted stream water. Photo credit: Alexander & Baldwin

In the late 1800s, with the introduction of sugar in central Maui and the construction of large-scale ditch systems, agreements for plantation water diversions still gave highest priority to the rights of Maui Hikina’s wetland kalo farmers and other downstream users. Following the illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom in 1893 by commercial sugar interests with the support of the U.S. military, these agreements unraveled. The sugar barons profited off their massive water diversions, while Native Hawaiian ‘ohana (families) from Maui Hikina moved away or adjusted to life drained of water.

Maui Hikina - Sugar cane harvest in central Maui

Over decades, officials charged with protecting Hawai’i’s watersheds repeatedly granted the plantation owners leases—and later, month-to-month revocable permits—to divert Maui Hikina streams. Through such rubberstamp giveaways, plantations continued diverting streamflows from 33,000 acres of public trust Crown Lands in Honomanū, Huelo, Ke‘anae, and Nāhiku, while also skirting Hawai‘i’s environmental laws. But the people of Maui Hikina never gave in or gave up.

The Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation (NHLC), representing Nā Moku ‘Aupuni ‘o Ko‘olau Hui, an association of kalo farming ‘ohana, engaged in a 20-year legal battle against Alexander & Baldwin, Inc. (A&B). In 2001, Nā Moku petitioned the state water commission to restore flows to 27 streams and also challenged the state land board for permitting A&B’s diversions of water from state-managed Crown Lands.

Maui Hikina’s Hōnōmanu Stream completely dewatered by sugar plantation diversions in 2019

While both cases were still winding their way through the legal system, A&B used its political muscle at the legislature in 2016 to change the law to cater to A&B’s continued diversions. In 2019, a broad coalition of kalo farmers and social and environmental justice allies killed H.B.1326, a second attempted favor to A&B, signaling a pathbreaking shift in the history of land and power in Hawai’i. The water commission issued a landmark decision in 2018 restoring flows to many Maui Hikina streams. And in 2022, the Hawai‘i Supreme Court confirmed that the land board’s repeated rubberstamp approvals violated the law.

For more information about how they secured these victories, click here.

In addition to joining the coalition at the legislature, the Sierra Club of Hawai’i also brought legal action to protect an additional 13 streams in Maui Hikina that were not covered in Nā Moku’s original 2001 petition for streamflow restoration. The Club sued the land board for its practice of rubberstamping temporary permits for A&B to divert streamflows without even measuring the streams, or remedying the egregious amounts of waste, harm to downstream users, and rubbish in the streambeds. The Club also filed a new petition with the water commission to protect the additional streams.

To learn more about the twists and turns in this case, click here

  • Pre-Māhele

    The lands of Maui Hikina thrive in a self-sustaining economy equal to or greater than any other wetland kalo growing landscapes in Hawai‘i nei.

  • 1980s

    The sugar plantation era gives way to the land development and tourism business. Stream diversions continue despite reduced water needs.

  • 2000

    “Temporary” Permits Issued.
    The state land board issues A&B month-to-month revocable permits to divert hundreds of millions of gallons of public water daily from dozens of streams in Maui Hikina, without any environmental review.

  • 2003

    First Victory for Taro Farmers!
    Circuit Court Judge Hifo (ret.) rules the land board improperly issued a long-term water lease to A&B without examining the environmental and cultural impacts.

  • 2007

    Land board grants interim relief to taro farmers by ordering A&B to restore 6 mgd to one stream and conduct environmental review of its diversions.

  • 2010

    Water commission sets flow standards for some streams. Taro farmers challenge the standards for 12 of the streams, but the commission denies their request for a contested case hearing.

  • 2014

    Taro farmers sue in circuit court to challenge the land board’s latest “holdover” permit to A&B (“Carmichael” case).

  • January 2016

    A&B runs to the legislature to undo the court ruling against holdover permits. Over the objections of thousands of people, the legislature amends the law to allow three more years of holdover permits.

  • End of 2016

    A&B closes its central Maui plantation, the last sugar plantation in Hawai‘i. Water commission reopens the case on the 27 streams, and the land board caps A&B’s diversions at 80 mgd, half the historical amount of 160 mgd.

  • July 2018

    Water commission issues new flow standards for the 27 streams, ordering full restoration of 10 streams and increased flow in a few other streams.

  • January 2019

    Sierra Club files suit challenging the land board’s continued permits for stream diversions without considering the harms and the wasting of water.

  • 2020-21

    A three-week trial, the first virtual trial in Hawai‘i history, is held in the Sierra Club case before Circuit Court Judge Crabtree. The Club appealed the court’s decision to allow the land board to continue issuing A&B diversion permits, while acknowledging the need to ensure public trust resources are protected.

  • 2022

    Hawai‘i Supreme Court rules in the Carmichael case that the land board’s rubberstamp permits for A&B’s diversions violated the water leasing law and requires environmental review.

  • 1876 to late-1930s

    Sugar plantations, including Alexander & Baldwin (A&B), construct seven ditches to divert up to 450 million gallons of water a day (mgd) from Maui Hikina, diminishing wetland kalo production and rural Native Hawaiian communities.

  • 1986

    A&B’s last long-term license expires, but the company continues to drain public water from Crown Lands in Maui Hikina without authorization.

  • 2001

    Legal Actions Begin.
    Nā Moku Aupuni ‘o Ko‘olau Hui (Nā Moku) challenges A&B’s request to the land board for a long-term water lease and petitions the state water commission to restore flows to 27 streams diverted by A&B.

  • 2005-13

    Bureaucratic Purgatory
    Every year, the land board renews “holdover” revocable permits for A&B to continue its diversions.

  • 2008

    Water commission rules that an additional 4.5 mgd should be restored among eight streams.

  • 2012

    The Intermediate Court of Appeals overturns the water commission’s denial of the taro farmers’ right to a contested case hearing.

  • January 2016

    Circuit Court Judge Nishimura (ret.) rules in the Carmichael case that the land board’s issuance of “holdover” permits to A&B for over a dozen years is unlawful.

  • January 2016

    Water commission issues an interim order restoring some flows to the 27 streams in the 2001 petition, and the land board orders A&B to leave 10 streams undiverted and remove all diversion structures on five additional streams.

  • 2017

    A&B begins the preparation of an Environmental Impact Statement (“EIS”), 10 years after the land board ordered an environmental review.

  • October 2018

    A&B sells its central Maui lands, 41,000 total acres, to Mahi Pono LLC.

  • May 2019

    H.B. 1326, A&B’s attempt to amend the law to extend holdover permits for another three years, dies in the face of overwhelming public opposition.

  • 2021

    A&B issues the final EIS for its long-term lease to divert Maui Hikina streams.