Aia i hea ka wai a Kāne? Where is the water of Kāne? On Maui, kamaʻāina might point to Mauna Kahālāwai, the “holding house of water,” also known as the West Maui Mountains and one of the wettest places on earth. For decades, however, kuleana families and Native Hawaiian community members throughout Maui Komohana have asked this question in a more literal sense, voicing grave concerns over historically dry streambeds and an overall lack of water to cultivate loʻi kalo, exercise traditional and customary Native Hawaiian practices, or simply bathe and cook in their homes. These community members were at the mercy of plantation water systems and the developers that operate them, an archaic form of water management that has now been brought to an end.
On June 14, 2022 the Hawaiʻi Commission on Water Resource Management (“Commission”) voted unanimously to designate the Lahaina Aquifer Sector Area (“Lahaina ASA”) as ground and surface water management areas, an effort initiated by the Commission itself for the first time in its history. Designation of the Lahaina ASA is a critical and necessary tool that allows the Commission to balance requests for water and ensure that public trust purposes, such as kalo cultivation, have priority over private commercial uses that are not entitled to the same protections. Designation also allows the Commission to plan and proactively manage Maui Komohana’s finite water resources in ways that combat the effects of drought, saltwater intrusion, and other harmful impacts of climate change.
While the overwhelming majority support designation and applaud the Commission’s leadership, specific landowners and businesses attempted to cast doubt on the wisdom of the Commission’s decision and ability to address West Maui’s historic and ongoing water disputes. The opposition leveraged concerns over delayed affordable housing development and the length of time to get a water permit to frame designation as a “worst case scenario.” The reality is, Maui has struggled with insufficient affordable housing for several decades because of the prevailing over-emphasis on luxury construction that up-ended the housing market. The Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, testified to the Commission about the benefits of designation for its beneficiaries, such as increased legal protection of its surface and groundwater reservations. Numerous kuleana families also testified that the “long hard process” of acquiring a permit should really be viewed in context of the decades of dewatered streams and resulting threats to protected Native Hawaiian practices, ʻāina-based livelihoods, and healthy native ecosystems.
Contrary to a “worst case scenario,” designation of Maui Komohana is an exciting opportunity for pono water stewardship. For the first time, the West Maui Community and the Water Commission have a process for deciding how to distribute surface and groundwater fairly. Anyone seeking to continue any current use of surface or groundwater must apply for a water use permit within one year. State law gives priority water access for public trust purposes, including the maintenance of water in its natural state, domestic water uses, water for the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, and water use in the exercise of traditional and customary Native Hawaiian rights. Kaleo Manuel, the Deputy Director of the Water Commission, summarized the importance of designation through an ʻōlelo noʻeau: “E ʻai i kekahi, e kāpī i kekahi. You eat some, you salt some. We have an obligation and opportunity to manage resources today but also ensure that they are sustainable into the future.” Both the West Maui community and the Hawaiʻi Water Commission have important kuleana at hand to manage Maui Komohana’s precious water resources for generations to come. He wai e mana, he wai e ola, e ola no, ea!