Waiāhole ‘auwai opening

Waiāhole ‘auwai opening (image by Piliāmo‘o)

The saying “Kalo Pa‘a o Waiāhole” (Hard Taro of Waiāhole) is a metaphor for this famously tenacious Windward O‘ahu community, who resisted eviction for land development in the 1970s, then led the charge in the 1990s to restore flows to Waiāhole, Waianu, Waikāne, and Kahana Streams and Kāne‘ohe Bay after a century of diversions for the plantation on the leeward O‘ahu plain.

In the Waiāhole water case, the community fought an epic legal battle against the largest legacy landowners and government powers in the state. In 2000, the Hawai‘i Supreme Court issued its monumental decision reaffirming that water is a public trust and reversing the Water Commission for inadequately restoring streamflows. When the Commission still resisted the Court’s directions, the community appealed again and won another decision in 2004.

The Waiāhole case achieved the first-ever restoration of streamflows formerly diverted by plantations in Hawai‘i. And the landmark court rulings in the case are recognized in the nation and world as leading precedent on the public trust doctrine—the fundamental legal principle that natural resources like water are held in trust for the benefit of all, including future generations.

Scientist holds jar containing water, rocks, and a live native 'o'opu.

Dr. Kaua Fraiola with ‘o‘opu


Kalo farmer with white beard holds freshly harvested kalo plants.

Charlie Reppun, taro farmer of Waiāhole

Tenacity Leads to Change

  • 1913-1916

    The Waiāhole Ditch is constructed on O‘ahu, diverting stream and mountain tunnel water from windward valleys to the leeward plain.

  • 1993

    Amfac announces it will close O‘ahu Sugar Co., the main user of the ditch system.  Numerous parties file legal claims to the water.

  • December 1994

    After a mediation process, the commission approves an interim agreement to reduce diversions and release the unused surplus into windward streams for six months.

  • Nov. 1995 – Sep. 1996

    The historic Waiāhole Ditch contested case hearing is held.  The full commission presides over the proceeding, which spans 52 hearing days and includes 25 parties, 161 witnesses, and 567 exhibits.

  • December 24, 1997

    The commission issues its final decision, increasing the water allocated to leeward parties.  Both windward and leeward parties appeal.

  • December 15, 1999

    The Hawai‘i Supreme Court holds a historic oral argument in the appeal, scheduled over an entire day.

  • December 2001

    The commission issues its second decision, increasing windward streamflows, but largely defending its previous decision. The windward parties again appeal.

  • July 2006

    The commission issues its third decision, further increasing streamflows. For the first time, the commission splits in its decision, with the chair dissenting that the commission has still failed to go far enough.

  • 1992

    The water commission designates Windward O‘ahu as a groundwater management area, requiring all users of the Waiāhole Ditch to apply for permits.

  • May 1994

    Community members discover that diverted water is being dumped into dry leeward gulches and file complaints with the commission.

  • June 1995

    A tense standoff occurs when windward community members block the gates to the ditch system to prevent Amfac from rediverting stream flows to the leeward side.  After Amfac temporarily backs down, the commission extends the interim release.

  • July 1997

    The commission issues its proposed decision.  In response, the governor publicly criticizes the decision and supports leeward interests, and the deputy attorney-general who had represented the commission from its creation is fired.

  • July 1998

    Over community protests, the state Agribusiness Development Corporation acquires the Waiāhole Ditch.

  • August 22, 2000

    The court issues its landmark decision in the Waiāhole case, reaffirming the law including the public trust, and reversing the commission for failing to uphold the law and restore streamflows to the extent feasible.

  • June 2004

    The Hawai‘i Supreme Court issues its second decision, again reversing the commission for failing to comply with the law.

  • 2010

    On appeal, the Intermediate Court of Appeals reverses the commission for issuing a permit to a closed golf course.  This decision brings a close to the Waiāhole contested case proceeding after more than 15 years.