Hui o Nā Wai ‘Ehā, 2019

Hui o Nā Wai ‘Ehā, 2019

Kaulana Nā Wai ‘Ehā: famous are “The Four Waters” of Waihe‘e, Waiehu, Wailuku, and Waikapū! The Nā Wai ‘Ehā region in central Maui was the island’s historical epicenter, supporting the largest continuous region of wetland kalo cultivation in all Hawai‘i nei. This land then became ground zero for the arrival of the plantations and their taking of stream and ‘auwai flows as private property. The arc of history came full circle in 2004, when Hui o Nā Wai ‘Ehā and Maui Tomorrow Foundation took legal action to restore streamflows and stop the illegal hoarding of water by Wailuku Water Company (formerly Wailuku Sugar) and Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar.

Children learn to harvest kalo while standing in a loi of mature kalo plants

Hui President Hōkūao Pellegrino

The case went all the way to the Hawai‘i Supreme Court, which in 2012 overturned the Water Commission’s 2008 decision to leave the streams mostly dry. A historic settlement in 2014 restored flows in all four streams for the first time in 150 years, but the work didn’t stop there. The HC&S plantation’s closure in 2016 and the first-ever permitting process for surface water led to the most comprehensive adjudication of water rights in Hawai‘i’s history.

Muddy children show off harvested kalo that is as tall as they are

Ho‘oana Farm in Waikapū

The commission’s latest decision in 2021 was a next step in restoring the priorities for the public trust and Native Hawaiian rights, but the fight to uphold these priorities is continuing in another appeal to the Hawai‘i Supreme Court.


Nā Wai ‘Ehā: A History of Water and the Law

Perhaps no other place in Hawai‘i reflects the historical arc of water and law as fully as Nā Wai ‘Ehā. It is here where water went from being recognized as a public trust under Hawaiian custom, to treated as private property by the plantations, to restored as a public trust through relentless and still-ongoing legal battles.

  • Pre-Māhele:

    Nā Wai ‘Ehā is the political and cultural center of Maui, the largest continuous area of kalo cultivation in all Hawai‘i nei.

  • 1924

    A two-decade legal battle between Wailuku Sugar and HC&S ends in an agreement in which the companies split control over Nā Wai ‘Ehā streamflows among themselves, while recognizing priority traditional (kuleana) water rights.

  • 2005

    After selling off all its agricultural lands to developers, Wailuku Agribusiness renames itself “Wailuku Water Company” (WWC), in the business of selling stream water to the public.

  • 2004

    Hui o Nā Wai ‘Ehā and Maui Tomorrow Foundation, represented by Earthjustice (together, the “Hui”) and allied with the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, take legal action before the state water commission to restore streamflows to Nā Wai ‘Ehā.

  • 2012

    The Hawai‘i Supreme Court issues its decision, reversing the commission for failing to uphold the public trust and protect Native Hawaiian rights, and sending the case back to the commission.

  • October 2014

    In response to the diverters’ continued delays and disregard of the settlement terms, 500+ community members rally in Wailuku for a historic showing of support for Nā Wai ‘Ehā.

  • August 2016

    Commission staff propose fines against the Duey ‘ohana for installing a pipe in Wailuku River to feed their traditional ‘auwai.  After a flood of outrage from people across the islands, the commission unanimously rejects the enforcement action.

    Read the full story here

  • 2nd Legal Battle

    HC&S closes and comprehensive permitting begins.

  • January 2016

    Alexander and Baldwin (A&B) announce the closure of the HC&S plantation due to declines in the sugar market.

  • 2019

    The commission hears final arguments in the second contested case, which includes an announcement of a settlement between the Hui and Mahi Pono supporting increased restoration of streamflows.

  • Mid-19th & Early 20th century

    The two major plantations in Nā Wai ‘Ehā are founded:  Wailuku Sugar plantation in 1862, and Hawaiian Commercial Sugar (HC&S) in 1882.  The plantations build two main ditch systems:  Spreckels Ditch in 1882, and Waihe‘e Ditch in 1907.

  • 1988

    The former Wailuku Sugar plantation, renamed Wailuku Agribusiness, ends sugar cultivation, selling its “excess” Nā Wai ‘Ehā stream water to the HC&S plantation under “temporary” deals.

  • 1st Legal Battle

    The first legal battle over streamflow restoration begins.

  • 2010

    After an extensive contested case process from 2007-08 and a proposed decision by the hearings officer in 2009 to restore 34.5 million gallons per day (mgd) of streamflow, the commission issues a final decision restoring only 12.5 mgd to Waihe‘e River and Waiehu Stream and zero to ‘Īao and Waikapū Streams.  The Hui appeals.

  • March 2014

    In a mediation on the eve of trial, the parties enter into a pathbreaking settlement restoring 24.5 mgd among all Nā Wai ‘Ehā streams, which the commission approves and orders in April.  Flows are finally restored to ‘Īao and Waikapū Streams in October.

    Read the Story Here

  • 2015

    After a state and federal approval process pursued by founding Hui member John Duey, ‘Īao Stream is officially renamed back to its traditional name of Wailuku River.

  • Sep. – Oct. 2016

    A 100-year flood buries and damages WWC’s ‘Īao diversion dam.  When WWC uses an excavator to illegally rechannel the river, three women step in front of the machine to stop it.  Federal and state regulators step in later to mitigate the damage.

  • 2008

    In response to a Hui petition, the commission designates Nā Wai ‘Ehā as the first surface water management area in Hawai‘i, requiring all users of stream water to apply for permits.

  • 2016-17

    A second contested case is conducted, combining comprehensive water use permitting with a new Hui petition to restore streamflows after HC&S’s closure.

  • June 2021

    The commission issues its final decision, which recognizes Native water rights have priority but, fails to restore more streamflows despite HC&S’s closure.  The case heads to the Hawai‘i Supreme Court again.