KAUNAKAKAI, Molokai – Residents of central Molokai are celebrating a decision last week by the state’s water commission to restore historic flows to five streams whose water was diverted for cattle ranching on the island’s west side.

“Happiness” is how Walter Ritte described his reaction to the Commission on Water Resource Management’s decision Tuesday to return water to East Kawela, East Kawela Tributary, West Kawela, Lualohe, and Waikolu streams. For over a century, water in those streams was diverted to Molokai Ranch, often leaving them dry, to the detriment of fish, birds, seaweed, plants and other downstream resources.

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While welcome, Tuesday’s decision isn’t a panacea, according to Ritte, a member of Molokai No Ka Heke, a community group that has pressed the commission to curb water diversions on the island. Although heartened by the panel’s action, several Molokai residents told Civil Beat that much work lies ahead to repair the land, wetlands and aquifer after so many years of being parched.

“It feels good. It’s justice for our aina. It makes me want to cry. It’s like having a loved one who is on her deathbed. Her blood was taken away and the doctor comes in and says how much blood you want returned and you say, ‘All of it. We want her to live,’” said Teave Heen, also a member of Molokai No Ka Heke.

After last week’s decision to approve “interim instream flow standards” for the streams, water will now flow downstream either fully or partially, a news release from the commission said.

East Kawela Tributary is one of the streams where historic water flows will be restored after a state water board decision. Courtesy: DLNR

The fifth stream, East Kawela, will see its water return in a phased approach, according to the commission, after Molokai Properties researches how much water is being wasted through reservoir evaporation and whether reusing wastewater is possible for meeting some of the company’s needs.

The commission gave the Singaporean firm 180 days to propose plans to fully restore East Kawela stream.

Mahesh Cleveland, an attorney for Earthjustice, said he would like community members to witness the moment when Molokai Properties opens the valve that will allow water to return to the East Kawela ahupuaa, or watershed. Cleveland’s organization, on behalf of Molokai No Ka Heke, brought a formal request before the water commission in 2019 urging it to do something to return water to streams in the Kawela watershed.

The commission’s decision was unprecedented because the members chose to act in the community’s best interest without being forced to through litigation, Cleveland said.

“It shows the power of community advocacy,” he said, noting that Molokai residents provided the commission with more than 100 pieces of written testimony and hours of oral testimony over the course of months, including a video shown at last week’s meeting.

“I want to acknowledge the young people here attending these meetings and advocating for full stream restoration and a healthier community. We have an opportunity to restore life to an area and this is moving us toward true equity,” Commissioner Aurora Kagawa-Viviani said in the commission’s news release.

Ritte plans to keep a watchful eye on whether Molokai Properties follows through on the commission’s decision.

“We’ve been in water wars for the past 40 years,” Ritte said. “The problem is that you have a foreign company from Singapore that owns one third of our island. The only purpose they have in mind is to make a profit. Their vision of the future of Molokai is in conflict with our vision of Molokai.”

Molokai resident Walter Ritte.
Molokai resident Walter Ritte. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Commission staff found that Molokai Ranch has diverted nine times the amount of water it actually needed, according to Earthjustice’s news release.

When streams dry up, the lack of water can affect cultural practices such as gathering limu or seaweed, harvesting fish in nearshore waters, gathering medicinal plants or operating fishponds. It can also affect aquatic species by altering their habitat.

The lack of water has affected Kakaha‘ia, formerly home to an inland fishpond and a national wildlife refuge since 1976, according to Earthjustice. By diverting water to Molokai Ranch, available habitat for protected waterbirds has shrunk. But with the commission’s decision to restore water, the refuge and nearby wetlands should be revitalized, the group said.

Water needs to be returned to the streams not just for the health of the fish and limu but for the health of the people who live the subsistence lifestyle and the overall health of the aina itself, said Heen.

During last week’s commission meeting, Cal Chipchase, an attorney for Molokai Properties, said the six-month window to evaluate the system’s loss of water through evaporation is appropriate. In response to an inquiry from Civil Beat on Monday, Chipchase said Molokai Properties looks forward to the continued opportunity “to achieve a balanced outcome.”

Watch the commission meeting here.

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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