The river that weaves through Waimea Canyon on the west side of Kauai has lost its luster over the past few decades due to stream diversions for a sugar plantation that shut down 12 years ago, according to a petition filed against the state Wednesday.

A community group called Poai Wai Ola wants the Commission on Water Resource Management to take action to restore the river for the public’s benefit. The group says the diversions via the Kekaha and Kokee ditches are degrading the environment and limiting traditional uses of the resource.

The petition includes historic photos of women catching hinana in a net at the mouth of the Waimea River around 1910 and a small sail boat cruising up the delta in 1860. These images contrast with recent photos of the river bed buried in brown silt and a man standing in ankle-deep water where there used to be a 15-foot deep swimming hole.

The complaint, filed by Earthjustice, a nonprofit public interest law firm, says the state Agribusiness Development Corporation and its tenant, Kekaha Agriculture Association, are wasting millions of gallons of diverted river water at the community’s expense.

“Waimea River is a natural and cultural treasure, not a plantation plumbing system,” Earthjustice attorney Isaac Moriwake said. “The diverters prefer to keep their spigot running full blast, but in the 21st century, it’s time we start taking care of the river for everyone, including future generations.”

In 1988, the commission rubber-stamped the level of diversions Kekaha Sugar plantation had been taking, which amounted to roughly 50 million gallons a day for 7,300 acres of cane fields. Earthjustice says this decision doesn’t reflect current conditions or adequately protect public uses of the river.

The petition calls on the commission to increase the minimum amount of water that must flow into Waimea River to protect fish habitats, recreational uses and Native Hawaiian customary rights.

It also calls for an end to dumping diverted water when it exceeds what seed companies and other current tenants need for their crops.

The Kekaha Agriculture Association, a farmers cooperative that manages and maintains Kekaha ag lands, did not return a message seeking comment.

The Agribusiness Development Corporation’s executive director, James Nakatani, said the agency will start looking into the petition’s claims immediately.

“We just want to do our due diligence and see what’s happening over there and see if the complaint is correct,” he said. “If we’re wasting water, that shouldn’t happen.”

The corporation’s main goals include transitioning former plantation land and water systems for diversified agriculture, which ranges from genetically modified seed companies to organic farming.

Still, Moriwake said the “50-million-gallon-a-day question” is: Now that the sugar plantation is gone, where’s the water?

The petition might weed out that answer; it asks the commission to require reporting and monitoring of actual uses and needs.

Deborah Ward, spokeswoman for the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources, which the Water Resource Management Commission falls under, said the state doesn’t comment on legal pleadings or innuendo. (Civil Beat provided the agencies with a copy of the complaint that was filed Wednesday with the commission.)

Kaina Makua, a Poai Wai Ola member, said there has been a continuous decline in the health of the Waimea River.

“It is basically dying, while precious river water is being dumped and wasted,” Makua said in a news release. “The Water Commission must step up, stop the waste, and let Waimea River flow again.”

Read the full petition here:

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