About three feet below a paved parking lot behind Marukai Market Place lies a shallow stream of continuously running, clear water encased in a concrete culvert.

But this isn’t just a stream – it’s an auwai, an irrigation ditch used by Native Hawaiians to water their taro fields, or loi kalo. The auwai has been underground for decades, and the hope is to eventually bring the water up to the surface, said Todd Apo, vice president of community development for Howard Hughes Corp.’s Ward Village, a 60-acre neighborhood with apartments, condos, shopping and restaurants in Kakaako.

Even if the water can’t be brought to the surface, developers are weighing how to tell people about the history of the auwai. One of the options being considered is a man-made stream that would mimic the auwai as part of an open park in the middle of Ward Village.

“It represented the greatest potential to connect with water,” said Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu, a cultural advisor for Ward Village. “In the urban core, where many of our places have seen a complete cover up of water that totally cut us off from water sources, how more appropriate could it be that a land steward could now reconnect with a water source?”

Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu, a cultural advisor for Ward village, said the water in the auwai was cool and had depths of a few inches.
Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu, a cultural advisor for Ward Village, said the water in the auwai was a few inches deep. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

The auwai currently runs underground from a well beneath the Neal S. Blaisdell Center, flowing south to Kewalo Harbor. Blaisdell sits on land that used to house a plantation that had a naturally flowing spring.

However, the water beneath the center has to be pumped by a machine, so any plan to bring the auwai back to the surface likely would not include the natural water flow.

Knowing that, Apo said the idea has shifted to making sure the concept and historical elements of the auwai are incorporated into park in the middle of the development, such as in the design, if the natural auwai cannot be used. Planning for the central plaza won’t begin until later this month, but this could possibly include a new water feature or signage.

“So as we look at our central plaza development, ensuring that the flowing water feature that represents that auwai and represents the connection mauka-makai and represents the life that comes from the water, is a part of what we put in there,” Apo said. 

Creating A Flow Of Water

Howard Hughes discovered the auwai about five years ago when it was looking into the infrastructure of its newly-acquired 60 acres, Apo said.

Its origins date back to the Ward family estate that sat on the land stretching from current day Thomas Square to the ocean. Blaisdell Center, Ward Centre and Ward Warehouse now occupy the area.

Before the auwai was encased in concrete, it flowed openly on the Ward family's "Old Plantation" estate. This 19th century photo shows a view north towards Punchbowl.
Before the auwai was encased in concrete, it flowed openly on the Ward family’s Old Plantation estate. This 19th century photo shows a northern view. Courtesy of Cultural Surveys Hawaii

A June 2015 archaeological survey of part of Ward Village found that the Ward family had an easement – a legal right to use another’s land – for the auwai, which extended from a large fishpond on the Old Plantation property.

Andrea Galvin, a spokesperson for Ward Village, said in an email that Howard Hughes realized the enclosed structure carrying water could be the auwai on the Ward estate based on the date the legal right to use someone else’s land was granted, which was in 1931.

The survey found that fish from a reef swam up the auwai and would get trapped by a gate in one of the property’s large ponds to fatten for harvest.

However, Matt McDermott, a project manager and principal investigator with Cultural Surveys Hawaii, which conducted the archaeological survey, said it’s unclear when the auwai was originally constructed.

The survey found the auwai was likely rerouted and enclosed in concrete sometime between 1919 and 1927.

Today, fish can continue to be seen swimming through the shallow waters underground.

The auwai extends from beneath the Neal S. Blaisdell Center to Kewalo Harbor.
The auwai extends from beneath the Neal S. Blaisdell Center to Kewalo Harbor. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

The well that supplies the the auwai is located next to Blaisdell’s Exhibition Hall and flows around the arena in the fishponds before returning underground near the the center’s maintenance shops on Kapiolani Boulevard, Guy Kaulukukui, director of the city enterprise services department, said in an email.

He added that the city pumps this water throughout the grounds to sustain the fishponds, and the auwai will continue to be a significant feature at the center.

City spokesperson Andrew Pereira said in an email the machine that pumps water in the well was installed many decades ago, but it’s unlikely the city has information on when exactly that was or who did it.

It’s an interesting dichotomy right now in the sense that … you have what was a naturally flowing spring at the Old Plantation and now Blaisdell. And to the extent that that spring has now stopped flowing naturally, you know, the question of how much do you pump water out of that, how much do you pull out of our water table and for what purposes?” Apo said.

That’s why it’s important that the history of the land and stories of the auwai are incorporated into Ward Village’s development, even if that doesn’t include the true auwai, he said.

Water Pathways

Michael Kido, who retired as the director of University of Hawaii’s Hawaii Stream Research Center, said finding an auwai in Kakaako is highly unusual because the area does not have continuously-flowing streams. Instead, there are artesian wells and cave tunnels, which typically get their water from higher in the watershed.

The question is, ‘Where is the source of water?’ Because there really is no stream nearby,” he said. “The only way that that is probably possible is if there’s an artesian source.”

But auwai are pathways for water, funneling it to taro fields, and they can get their water from streams or underground sources, Wong-Kalu said.

The area the auwai flows through is part of the ili, or land section, called Kukuluaeo, named for the Hawaiian stilt bird, aeo, that lived in the area. The archaeological survey described the area as having salt ponds, fish ponds and marshes, though Wong-Kalu said there were also salt pans.

Cultural advisor Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu holds some of the water from the underground auwai.
Cultural advisor Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu holds some of the water from the underground auwai. 

Kido said he believes Kakaako’s underground water may be fueled by sources from higher up in Nuuanu or Makiki. Water in the islands come from rainfall on the mountains, and their flow down to the ocean depends on how lava formed the area.

Underground water sources are found all around the Hawaiian islands, especially in the leeward regions. Kido cited Waianae and Kona as examples – they have few streams but water comes from the mountains below ground and flows out along the coastline.

Water, or ‘wai,’ is valuable in Hawaiian culture. In fact, it creates the word ‘waiwai,’ meaning ‘wealth,’ Wong-Kalu said.

“The wealth of someone was not necessarily determined by how much you accumulated and how much in material things, such as money or other things like that,” she said. “But really wealth was how well your land flourished, based on the availability of water.”

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