West Kauaʻi and the Future of the Waimea River

In West Kauaʻi, the Kauaʻi Island Utility Cooperative (KIUC) is proposing a first-of-its-kind pumped hydropower and irrigation project that would take billions of gallons of Waimea River flows each year for the next 65 years to generate energy and supply water for agriculture. This long-term commitment of public trust water resources will outlast most of our lifetimes, continuing for generations to come. While the concept of the project holds promise, serious questions are emerging about the project’s details, including the environmental and cultural costs compared to the benefits for the West Kauaʻi community.

Pō‘ai Wai Ola, a grassroots organization in West Kauaʻi dedicated to protecting water resources for present and future generations, has engaged in legal processes related to the proposed project for almost a decade. As more details of the project have been unveiled, the community has raised many questions and concerns about the project’s environmental and cultural impacts that have yet to be addressed.

In July 2013, Pō‘ai Wai Ola, represented by Earthjustice, took legal action at the state water commission to restore Waimea River flows and end the hoarding and wasteful dumping of water that had continued for years even after the close of the former Kekaha Sugar plantation in 2001. This action resulted in a mediation agreement between various stakeholders in the Waimea watershed area. Billed at the time as a “win-win-win,” the agreement stopped the excess diversion and dumping of streamflows, mandated the protection of the river as the first priority, and gave KIUC the opportunity to pursue due diligence of its proposed hydro project. The agreement envisioned an average of 11 million gallons of water per day (mgd) to be diverted from the Waimea River for the dual purpose of powering KIUC’s project and supplying agricultural irrigation needs.

The mediation agreement also required compliance with the environmental review requirements under the Hawai‘i Environmental Policy Act, HRS chapter 343, before any of the numerous permits and approvals needed for the project can be issued. In August 2021, KIUC published a draft environmental assessment (EA) claiming this once-in-a-lifetime project would have “no significant impact” on the environment.

Community members have raised numerous deficiencies in KIUC’s EA. The EA fails to disclose and analyze the impacts of a long-term average diversion of 11 mgd on the river ecosystem, native stream life, and traditional and customary native Hawaiian practices. It also ignores the impacts of dumping on the Mānā Plain diverted flows not used for irrigation needs, which KIUC indicates could reach up to 26 mgd. Such excess discharges would further contribute to ongoing problems of nearshore water pollution caused by the dirty and dilapidated plantation drainage ditches on the plain funneling the flows into the ocean.

KIUC also filed an application with the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) seeking the first major approval for the proposed project. While the PUC initially signaled it would not issue a decision on KIUC’s application until the environmental review process is completed, the agency buckled under extreme pressure from KIUC and rushed out its approval while environmental review is still ongoing. This decision nullifies the PUC’s legal duties and undermines public confidence in the process and project.

A hydro project of such monumental scale and complexity will certainly have a significant impact on the environment and should be required to undergo comprehensive environmental review to fully disclose and understand the environmental and cultural impacts and implement appropriate mitigation measures—before agencies issue approvals for the project. Pō‘ai Wai Ola will continue to participate in proceedings related to the proposed project to ensure the intent and spirit of the mediation agreement are upheld, and full and proper environmental review is completed. Environmental and cultural concerns must be addressed to ensure the project fully realizes its “win-win-win” promise, centered first on the West Kauaʻi community that would be hosting the project.

Together, we can restore Hawai‘i’s waterways.

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