In what was one of the largest proposed fines in the recent history of Hawaii’s Commission on Water Resource Management, state officials are ordering a private water company in West Maui to make an estimated half-million dollars worth of repairs and improvements as punishment for taking too much water out of a stream.

Maui County locator map

Olowalu Water Co. is a privately owned water company tied to West Maui Land Co., a real estate firm run by developer Peter Martin that’s bought up swaths of former plantation lands and their century-old water systems to pave the way for development in West Maui.

The commission said Olowalu Water is a repeat violator of the state’s water rules, which in part is why earlier this year the state proposed slapping the company with a $470,000 fine for drawing more water than it was allowed from Olowalu Stream for more than 550 days since 2019.

After weeks of settlement discussions, the water commission on Tuesday agreed on a settlement that, instead of forcing Olowalu Water Co. to pay the fine in cash, requires it to make improvements to the community’s water system. The value of the repairs is expected to add up to — or exceed — the fine amount, which includes fixing up two leaking reservoirs, buying a sand filter to improve water quality and prevent blockages and allow the Olowalu Cultural Reserve to borrow a woodchipper for the next four years to get rid of invasive species and improve the health of the watershed.

If Olowalu Water doesn’t follow through, “the commission can — and will — pursue the fine again,” said Kaleo Manuel, deputy director of the Commission on Water Resource Management.

Kaleo Manuel, deputy director of the Commission on Water Resource Management, said at the water commission meeting this week that it will pursue the fine again if Olowalu Water Co. doesn’t abide by the settlement. Screenshot/2022

The water commission’s action comes as part of a broader push in recent years to more closely manage and protect Hawaii’s most precious natural resource, shifting away from the previous status quo that bent to the demands of plantations and large landowners. Over the last few years, the change in direction has unfolded visibly in West Maui, where fights over water — or the lack thereof — have escalated in the face of more development, less rainfall and the increasing threats of climate change.

In 2018, the commission made historic new rules on how much water people can pull from some West Maui streams in an effort to restore and protect delicate natural ecosystems, which for decades suffered when plantations sucked streams dry to irrigate their fields. Then earlier this year, the commission took another major step to more carefully manage the water in West Maui by paving the way for the state to decide who is allowed to use water and how much.

During Tuesday’s meeting, some community members applauded the water commission’s latest move to hold Olowalu Water Co. accountable, saying the settlement would make the company pay for its wrongdoings — while at the same time ensuring the fine didn’t disappear into state government coffers.

“We all know that fines often go into like this blackhole of the general fund, and it doesn’t ultimately end up benefiting the areas where the violation occurred,” said Kai Nishiki, a longtime champion for preserving Maui’s coastlines, who has fought to protect Olowalu.

Olowalu Water Co. was accused of building a dam and diverting 2 million gallons of stream water a day without proper permission. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

But other West Maui community members questioned whether the water commission was letting the repeat violator off too easily. In some residents’ view, West Maui Land Co. — and the numerous private utilities it runs — have for too long gotten away with sucking streams dry to supply new luxury development in one of the driest regions on Maui.

Kekai Keahi, a longtime West Maui resident, told commissioners that by allowing Olowalu Water to make repairs on its own system — something that benefits its customers — the state was going “too light” on the company with a troubled track record.

In 2018, Olowalu Water Co. was accused of building a dam and diverting 2 million gallons of stream water a day without proper permission, according to state documents. The next year, residents who’d been working for years to restore Kahoma Stream found it dry, a situation they blame in part on alleged mismanagement by West Maui Land Co.

A luxury home in Olowalu. Some say the state went too lightly on a repeat violator that has allegedly used more water than it’s allowed for housing developments. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

Then there was the conflict that unfolded earlier this year in Kauaula Valley, after Launiupoko Irrigation Co. — another company tied to West Maui Land — was also accused of taking more stream water than it was allowed. When faced with fines of up to $5,000 per day, the irrigation company suddenly stopped tapping the stream, and told its customers in the subdivision it serves there would be no more irrigation water.

At the same time, generational families who had also been relying on Launiupoko Irrigation Co. found their supply dry, too. Dozens of people, from young children to kupuna, suddenly lost the only source of running water for their crops, livestock and homes, spurring a judge to order it restored.

“It’s almost like you guys dismiss what happened in those valleys,” Keahi, who worked to restore Kahoma Stream, told the commission. “You enable them by not coming down on them.”

Besides forcing the water company to make repairs to the leaking water system, it was also a way for the state to avoid lengthy legal proceedings that could’ve unfolded had the water company decided to fight the fine — a possibility that the company’s attorney acknowledged during Tuesday’s meeting.

“That’s always been our intent: to do a good job,” Glenn Tremble, who runs Olowalu Water Co., said during the meeting. “There was no intent to violate the law; we apologize.”

Olowalu Water Co. management apologized, saying they did not intend to break the law. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

The big question that remains for some community members is whether the state will have the bandwidth — and the leadership — in the years to come to enforce the settlement. Although water commission staff promised to follow through during Tuesday’s meeting, the agreement comes just weeks before a new governor is set to take control, who will shape the Department of Land and Natural Resources and its Commission on Water Resource Management.

Gov.-elect Josh Green, who won the Nov. 8 election by a wide margin, will pick a new DLNR chair, subject to Senate confirmation, after he takes over as governor next month. That chair — which for the past several years has been Suzanne Case, chosen by Gov. David Ige — is the de facto head of the water commission and Board of Land and Natural Resources.

In general, DLNR receives about 1% or less of the state’s operating budget, a level of funding that some say hinders the agency’s ability to enforce its rules. Whoever leads the water commission next will decide where to focus its limited resources — and against whom to take enforcement actions.

“I just wanted to make sure that, once we get into these things, that CWRM is really on this,” Ke‘eaumoku Kapu, whose family has fought for water access in West Maui, told commissioners. “Because when it comes to enforcement of our resources, I know that CWRM is kind of limited.”

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation and the Fred Baldwin Memorial Foundation.

Help power our public service journalism

As a local newsroom, Civil Beat has a unique public service role in times of crisis.

That’s why we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content, so we can get vital information out to everyone, from all communities.

We are deploying a significant amount of our resources to covering the Maui fires, and your support ensures that we can pivot when these types of emergencies arise.

Make a gift to Civil Beat today and help power our nonprofit newsroom.

About the Author