Waimea Canyon

Waimea Canyon

In 2017, Pō‘ai Wai Ola/West Kaua‘i Watershed Alliance, represented by Earthjustice, reached a historic settlement to restore flows to Waimea River and its tributaries after over a century of diversions. But the work continues to protect the river for future generations from companies that want to drain it for hydropower.

Group stands in river, ankle-deep

Waimea River kia‘i (protectors)

Waimea River is one of the largest rivers in Hawai‘i, running through the famous “Grand Canyon of the Pacific.” In earlier times, the valley was known for its extensive lo‘i kalo (wetland taro fields) and abundant stream life. One of Hawai‘i’s most famous ancient ‘auwai (irrigation channels), Kīkīaola or the Menehune Ditch, carried water around a cliff above the river to the lo‘i kalo throughout the delta.

Plantation-era dam structure blocking flows in Waiakoali Stream

Waiakoali Stream dam

In the past century, the Kekaha Sugar plantation diverted much of Waimea River’s flows through the Kōke‘e and Kekaha Ditches, destroying the once-thriving river ecosystem and leaving only a shallow trickle choked with silt. After the plantation closed in 2000, the state leased the ditches to Kekaha Agriculture Association (KAA), whose members mainly include industrial ag companies running experimental field tests. Although their seed plots use far less water than thirsty sugarcane, KAA continued diverting the river at plantation-era levels to run antiquated plantation hydro plants and sell the energy to Kaua‘i Island Utility Cooperative (KIUC) for profits.

Broken concrete and large rocks block streamflow

Kekaha Ditch diversion dam

In 2013, Pō‘ai Wai Ola brought legal action and, four years later, reached a settlement with various diverters and landowners to return flows to the watershed. This was the first major water battle in Hawai‘i that was resolved through agreement, without years of litigation.

But the work isn’t over by any stretch. KAA has dragged its feet for years to comply with the settlement. Also, KIUC is planning to build a major new hydro project that would restart large-scale diversions through the Kōke‘e Ditch for another century. The community must remain maka‘ala (vigilant) to make sure KIUC’s proposed project is pono and does not simply double up on KAA’s Kekaha Ditch diversions.

Additional Readings:

Citizens Demand Restoration of River in “Grand Canyon of the Pacific” on Kaua‘i 

Grand Canyon of the Pacific Running Dry

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

Waimea Water Deal Is a ‘Win-Win-Win’ for Hawai‘i

Righting Historical Wrongs in the Waimea Watershed

  • 1906-1907

    The Kekaha Sugar plantation, a private company leasing its lands from the government, constructs the Kekaha Ditch to divert the mid-reaches of the Waimea River to irrigate sugarcane crops on the Mānā Plain, a drained coastal wetland.

  • 2000

    Kekaha Sugar plantation closes.

  • 2004

    Kekaha Agriculture Association takes over the operation of the Kekaha and Kōke‘e Ditches and begins planting experimental seed crops.

  • 2015

    After two years of investigations, the state water commission orders the matter to mediation.

  • November 2020

    After several years of foot-dragging by the diverters, Pō‘ai Wai Ola reports widespread violations of the agreement, including failures to meet the mandated instream flow standards, monitor stream and ditch flows, and modify the diversion structures.

  • December 2021

    Public Utilities Commission caves to industry pressure and approves KIUC’s proposed hydro project before the state-mandated environmental review process has been completed.