Dozens of people filed into the Waiola Church in Lahaina on Tuesday evening, clutching pieces of paper on which they’d written everything they wanted to tell regulators about whether the state should more carefully manage West Maui’s most precious resource: water.

Maui County locator map

In a rare move, the state Commission on Water Resource Management is pushing to make the Lahaina aquifer sector, which supplies West Maui’s water, a “surface and ground water management area.” It’s the technical term that means, if future water supplies might be in jeopardy, state regulators can decide who can use water and how much they can take from wells and streams.

Right now, the Iao aquifer and the streams that feed it are the only other water resources on Maui that fall under such protections, so the state held the meeting in Lahaina to find out what the community thought about the idea. Over the course of almost four hours, 60 people, ranging from school children to kupuna, shared their thoughts. A slim minority spoke against the proposal, saying that it was “premature” and could bring unintended consequences, like slowing permits and stalling housing development.

But the vast majority of those in the audience saw it differently. As their children giggled in the playground outside of the church, Native Hawaiian families passionately pleaded with the state that the protections couldn’t come soon enough. Kalo farmers, wearing shirts stained with dirt and sweat, said for too long water was mismanaged by plantations and wealthy landowners, starving streams that once fed taro patches and thriving Hawaiian communities. A half dozen or so children were also in attendance, imploring the adults to think about their futures.

“Are you people going to make it good, or are you going to make it worse?” a young boy asked state officials at the front of the crowded church.

A photo of Kauaula Valley
Kalo farmers in West Maui have for years fought with plantations and developers for access to water. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

Tuesday’s public meeting marked the next step in a long and complicated process that the state is going through as it weighs whether it should designate the Lahaina aquifer sector as a surface and ground water management area. Officials will consider the public’s feedback when making the decision, which would give the Commission on Water Resource Management the authority to decide how much water is taken out of streams and pumped from wells in the region spanning from Ukumehame to Honokohau.

If the proposal moves forward, it also means that any water decisions will be made in public, with the opportunity for others to weigh in. Right now, permits to build wells are usually treated like construction permits; as long as applicants meet all the legal requirements, government agency staff can approve them without public input.

Hawaii law, however, says the commission “shall” start managing communities’ water supplies that might be “threatened” — which the agency argues is already happening in West Maui. State data shows that some parts of West Maui are already being pushed beyond “sustainable yields,” the maximum amount of water that can be pumped out of the ground without hurting future availability.

At the same time, with a wave of new developments on the horizon, Maui County predicts demand for drinking water in Lahaina will soar 67% by 2035. Meanwhile, scientists believe that West Maui will only get drier in the years to come: At the worst, Ukumehame could see rainfall drop by around 55% by the end of the century; at best, Honokohau in the north could see declines in the 5% to 10% range, state officials said.

“We cannot afford to be careless with our most precious resource at this point in time, when we know better,” Tamara Paltin, who holds the County Council seat for West Maui, said during the meeting.

A map of drought conditions on Maui
A screenshot from the Commission on Water Resource Management’s report on the proposal to manage the Lahaina aquifer. Screenshot

For centuries, Native Hawaiian communities viewed water as a shared and sacred resource, a perspective that’s since become ingrained in Hawaii’s constitution, laws and court decisions. Today, water in Hawaii is protected as a public trust, and the state is charged with managing and conserving water resources for the benefit of all people. Unlike in other states, water rights can’t be bought or sold, but companies and landowners can still apply for permits to use water.

For more than a century, however, plantations controlled Maui’s water, funneling it from streams to irrigate sugar cane and pineapple fields. Streams ran dry, and many Hawaiian families lost the source that fed kalo. Without a way to grow their own food, many were displaced from ancestral lands.

But in recent years, the state has increasingly ordered some landowners to stop taking as much water from streams, in hopes of restoring delicate ecosystems and protecting Native Hawaiian rights to access water for cultural practices and kalo farming. Still, some Lahaina kalo farmers who attended Tuesday’s meeting welcomed more oversight, saying that the private companies who’ve been ordered to restore streamflow aren’t always following the rules.

A photo of taro growing in the Kauaula Valley
Families for generations have grown taro in the Kauaula Valley. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

Lauren Palakiko, who’s married to a kalo farmer, said she’s stood at her husband’s side over the years as he’s fought almost daily for water from a private irrigation company that’s supposed to provide her family with water from Kauaula Stream, which runs through the valley above Launiupoko. The company, Launiupoko Irrigation, was for years tapping stream water to irrigate a wealthy subdivision, until it recently got in trouble for taking too much. As it faced fines of up to $5,000 per day, it stopped taking water to fill its reservoirs — and also stopped delivering water to the homes of other families living in the valley.

“My baby and I had to bathe out of a bucket of river water,” Palakiko said.

On Tuesday, Glenn Tremble, who works for Launiupoko Irrigation, was among fewer than a dozen people who cautioned regulators against the stricter regulation of water permits. Others in opposition argued it’d make things even more difficult for property owners and questioned whether the state has the bandwidth to handle a wave of new permit applications when it can already take a couple years to get one.

One testifier, Steve Miller, who’s worked with Maui developers, went as far as saying the designation would be a “moratorium on affordable housing developments on the West Side.”

“Without any water, it just means a halt to housing,” he said.

A screenshot of ground water management areas
A screenshot of a state map showing existing groundwater management areas. Screenshot

But that hasn’t been true in Central Maui, where the Iao aquifer is already under heightened protection by the state. Hokuao Pellegrino, who farms kalo on his ancestral lands and serves as the president of Hui o Na Wai Eha, which fought for stream restoration in Central Maui, told regulators that the community has instead worked together to protect streamflow and balance the needs of all those who use water — including kalo growers, developers, the county, Maui Tropical Plantation and other farmers.

The only ones who’ve resisted, Pellegrino said, are corporate water companies.

“The Hui has on-ground knowledge, real-time data and experience,” Pellegrino said. “If this process didn’t work, we would be the first to tell you.”

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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