For generations, Keeaumoku Kapu’s family has lived deep in the Kauaula Valley, tucked in the foothills that rise above Launiupoko.
He can trace his ancestors’ roots to the land back more than 170 years, and his family has always relied on the Kauaula Stream that runs through the valley to raise pigs and grow taro and other food they need to survive.
For more than a century, his family’s largest neighbor was a sugar plantation, the Pioneer Mill, which ran a system of irrigation ditches that used water from the stream for its crops — until the turn of the 21st century, when the business shut down and sold the land to a developer.
West Maui Land, the developer, created its own drinking and irrigation water utilities and took control of the century-old irrigation ditch system. It diverted water from the stream to a series of pipes and reservoirs to irrigate its subdivision. As part of a legal settlement, it also was required to use that same diversion system to supply water to families like the Kapus.
In the years that followed, the developer built hundreds of homes, many of them sprawling multimillion dollar estates with pools, grassy lawns and lush landscaping. Demand for water soared. Then in 2018, the state told the developer’s irrigation company it needed to keep more water in the stream, leaving it without enough supply to meet the demand.
But the company didn’t fully comply with that order, according to the state. So just before the Easter weekend, when faced with fines of up to $5,000 per day, the irrigation company stopped taking water from the stream. It told its customers there would be no more irrigation water, and the ditch that is the sole source of running water for Kapu’s family and two others in the area ran dry.
“What really hit us was that none of us were given any notice,” Kapu said. “We went into frantic emergency mode, got in touch with the families and texted everyone, ‘ration your water.’”
Almost 70 people, between the ages 2 and 74, suddenly lost the only source of running water for their crops, livestock, showers, flushing toilets and other household needs, Kapu said.
As Kapu scrambled to help his neighbors, his attorney sued Launiupoko Irrigation Co., the private irrigation company charged with running the system.
This week, 2nd Circuit Court Judge Kirstin Hamman temporarily ordered Launiupoko Irrigation to restore water to the families and farmers on nearby Kamehameha Schools land who rely on the stream.
The state Commission on Water Resource Management also told the irrigation company earlier this week that it needed to provide 300,000 gallons per day to the families and farmers for the next 90 days, while regulators worked to figure out what to do next.
“I pretty much wake up every day wondering if I have water,” Gunars Valkirs, who runs a chocolate farm on Kamehameha Schools property that relies on water from the Kauaula Stream, told state regulators at a meeting on Tuesday. “That’s how I live these days.”
The dilemma underscores a harsh reality: There isn’t enough water flowing through the century-old irrigation system to fulfill the needs of everyone who relies on it.
The stream needs a certain level of water to keep it and the plants and animals that rely on it healthy. Then, the Hawaiian families and farmers on Kamehameha Schools property need water from the stream, as do the residents in the 400-home development below.
The irrigation company says it would rather pump water from wells than the stream, but it argues that would require charging customers higher rates to cover its expenses. It’s in the middle of asking state regulators for permission to do that.
“This situation is dire,” Glenn Tremble of Launiupoko Irrigation told the state water commission at the meeting. “The users are competing against each other.”
The company didn’t reply to a request for further comment.
It’s a situation that some regulators fear will become increasingly common in the years to come. As the state has sought to better protect Hawaii’s waterways, it has in some cases ended plantation-era stream diversions, ordering companies to restore stream flows.
At the same time, the state says that rainfall has dropped significantly in recent decades, and water resource experts fear that as the climate crisis unfolds, the islands could increasingly face drought, leaving even less water in streams to draw from.
“This is not the first of these issues that we’ll be facing,” Mike Buck, a member of the Commission on Water Resource Management, told his peers during the meeting earlier this week. “The water is over allocated, there is not enough water, and the historic expectations of the amount of water that was available is just not going to be there in the future.”
“That’s just the reality that we all need to face,” he continued.
In Hawaii, water is protected as a public trust — unlike in other states, water rights can’t be bought or sold. Instead, the state is charged with protecting and conserving water resources for the benefit of all its people.
Kapu’s ancestors were among the Hawaiian farmers originally granted land during the Great Mahele, the 19th century historical land division that for the first time allowed private property ownership in Hawaii.
As a young adult, his father would lead him high into the valley, to the place where the Kauaulu Stream met the dam that fed water into the plantation’s old irrigation ditches.
For decades, they took responsibility for cleaning debris from the ditches to make sure water continued to flow well. After heavy rains, they would clear the silt and rocks from the dam, so water continued to flow into the diversion: a large concrete structure that takes in stream water and directs it through gates either back into the stream or to a ditch that carries water down to Kapu’s land and the reservoirs that irrigate the subdivision below.
But that changed when the plantation shut down, and the developer took over, he said. Over the years, his family had run into disputes with their new neighbor — almost two decades ago, for example, the two parties reached a settlement that said that the developer would have to keep providing water to Kapu.
Hawaii courts and government regulators have long ruled that landowners who were originally awarded property during the Great Mahele, known as kuleana users, have rights to access water for cultural practices and taro farming.
Last week, Launiupoko Irrigation told its customers it wouldn’t provide any more water for irrigation, according to notices sent to customers that were shared with Civil Beat. But for now, under the state’s order, the irrigation company must still provide water to families and farmers whose only source of water is the stream, and over the next few months, is supposed to work with state regulators, farmers and families like Kapu to find a solution.
What’s happening now isn’t working, Kapu said. Five years ago, his family used to have enough water to farm nine taro patches that he used to supply food for weddings, funerals and other parties across the community. Now, he can barely keep up with two and a half.
Earlier this week, he stood next to his taro fields, pointing to a dry patch of land, where his family used to raise hogs. There isn’t enough water for that anymore.
“We don’t even have enough water to fight fire,” he said.
Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation and the Fred Baldwin Memorial Foundation.
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