DHHL hopes to use some of the $600 million appropriated for homelands last year to improve infrastructure, including water access.

WAIMEA, Hawaii Island — Diane Kaneali’i has lived on the Kawaihae Hawaiian homestead for over 20 years, and though she wants a garden on her property to enliven the arid landscape and grow her own produce, she can’t afford it. Few of her neighbors can — a garden would drive their exorbitant water bills even higher.

The residents of the Kailapa subdivision, including Kaneali’i, who served as the president and executive director of the Kailapa Community Association, have for years had to restrict their water usage because of unusually high costs.

It’s a burden they didn’t expect when the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands gave them their land, which is north of Kailua-Kona. The problem takes on extra weight in an island state with a limited fresh water supply.

“Water is life,” Kaneali’i said. “Living the Hawaiian lifestyle, it’s not possible without water. ”

The homesteaders have long pressed DHHL to fulfill its promise to provide accessible water for its Native Hawaiian beneficiaries. They’re not alone when it comes to water access issues on Hawaiian homelands.

“The lands that were set aside for the department are almost universally dry and remote,” said Jonathan Likeke Scheuer, a Hawaii water law expert and DHHL consultant. “So struggles with securing water to homestead lands, as well as getting that water there at a reasonable price, are not unique to almost any of the DHHL land tracts around the islands.” 

Kailapa Community Association Pavilion Waimea DHHL Department of Hawaiian Home Lands Diane Kanealii water
Diane Kaneali’i, center, and other residents discuss concerns about water issues on Hawaiian homelands at the Kailapa Community Association Pavilion in Waimea. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

The Hawaiian Homes Commission Act, enacted by federal law in 1921, created the homesteading program to provide land to Native Hawaiians. However, DHHL has faced criticism for allowing over 29,000 people to sit on the waitlist for homestead lands, with many dying before getting a lot.

The delay has, in part, been blamed on the fact that much of the land is geographically unsuitable for development. As of 2019, over 65,000 acres of DHHL land across the islands lacked the necessary infrastructure to build homes, including roads and water lines.

Last year, state legislators and the governor agreed to commit a historic sum of $600 million over a 20-year period to help develop Hawaiian homelands and provide more housing for beneficiaries.

Lacking Infrastructure

A portion of the funds will be used to acquire property for water source development, according to DHHL’s implementation plan. The improvements to water access can’t come too soon for many homesteaders.

“The folks who live in (the Kailapa) community are feeling the impact of those water rates every day,” Likeke Scheuer said. “It’s a big impact.”

In 1997, DHHL reached an agreement with the private Kohala Ranch Water Co. to provide water for 196 residential lots in the Kailapa subdivision. The company also services hundreds of other clients, including the coastal luxury communities Kohala by the Sea and Kohala Waterfront.

Kailapa Community Association Waimea DHHL Department of Hawaiian Home Lands Water
The Kawaihae Hawaiian homelands, including the Kailapa subdivision, are surrounded by rolling hills patched with dry grasses in one direction and the ocean in another. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

The water company charges a monthly rate over six times Hawaii County’s rate, which starts at $1.25 per 1,000 gallons. Kohala Ranch charged $8.58 per 1,000 gallons last month, said Bill Moore, the company’s vice president, but the rate varies based on service-related costs.

An average customer in Hawaii pays about $171.32 for water for a two-month period, the typical billing cycle, according to the Hawaii Department of Water Supply. Many Kailapa residents are paying over $300 per cycle. 

Kohala Ranch Water Co.’s rates are regulated by the state’s Public Utilities Commission, and they reflect the actual costs of providing water to customers, according to Moore and DHHL.

State Hawaii Department of Hawaiian Home Lands sign warning kapu water tank round structure Kailapa Community Association Waimea DHHL Department of Hawaiian Home Lands water storage
DHHL warns to avoid the area surrounding a well at the top of a hill in the Kailapa community. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

But the costs are driven up by the need to pump the water and other infrastructure-related expenses.

Earlier this month, DHHL urged homesteaders in Kailapa to conserve water after two wells operated by Kohala Ranch went out of service due to an electrical malfunction with the well pump control station.

The water conservation notice was lifted after two days, Hawaii News Now reported.

The water-related issues don’t only affect the individual homesteaders but also the community as a whole. The Kailapa Community Association’s executive board recently removed plants from the area surrounding the community center because it became too expensive to maintain them, Kaneali’i said. 

Fittingly, the name Kawaihae, which translates to “water of wrath,” was derived from a past conflict over water access in the arid region.

DHHL has repeatedly sought to secure water from the county for the Kailapa lessees, but the system doesn’t reach the area. Likeke Scheuer estimates that it would cost “many millions of dollars,” to extend the county’s water lines to the homestead.

Landscaping Flaws

DHHL also has faced water woes with newer developments that are connected to the county water system.

About 35 miles south of Kailapa, residents of Lai Opua Village 4, which completed its first phase of development in 2021, started receiving high monthly water bills shortly after moving in, albeit for a different reason than the Kawaihae homesteaders.

The village, which is part of a larger master-planned community that spreads over 1,000 acres, is hooked up to the county’s water system so residents are charged the county rate for water. However, some of the renters said they were surprised to learn they’re responsible for paying to irrigate a large swath of land, or “common area,” that they might not need or want. Others feel the cost should fall under the purview of the community developer or DHHL.

“There was a flaw in the landscaping plan and design,” said Craig “Bo” Kahui, executive director of the Lai Opua Community Development Corp. and longtime Village 3 resident.

DHHL Department of Hawaiian Home Lands Villages of La’i ‘Opua common area watering water common area dry
Residents in the most recent development in the DHHL Villages of Lai Opua were surprised to get high water bills prompted by the need to pay for irrigation for a section known as the “common area.” (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

The amount billed to each household varies.

“Nobody’s water bill should be this high,” said Laura Tina, a Village 4 tenant who has received bills totaling over $400.

At a DHHL meeting in May, West Hawaii Hawaiian Homes Commissioner Makai Freitas acknowledged that the department is “aware of the $2,000 monthly water bills,” referencing testimony regarding one hillside lot in particular, and is “trying to resolve this issue.”

Unlike many other DHHL projects in which beneficiaries receive 99-year leases at $1 per year, Village 4 tenants must rent their property for at least 15 years before being given the option to buy it.

Eligible tenants were required to earn between 30% and 60% of the area’s median income, and some units were restricted to those making no more than 30%, meaning a family of four had to bring in less than $24,990 to qualify. 

Seeking Solutions

The high water prices came as a surprise, said Doug Bigley, the director and president of Ikaika Ohana, the affordable housing developer that manages Village 4.

“We didn’t really think about it, and (DHHL) didn’t think about it either, so the person selecting a lot didn’t anticipate it,” Bigley said. “I don’t think anybody did.” 

Last year, Kahui commissioned an audit of the area. It found that 61 lots in the development were affected by the issue, including 17 situated atop a hillside, said Wes Mountz, the manager of West Side Hawaii Irrigation and Landscape, which conducted the audit.

Ikaika Ohana has stripped down the landscaping on each of the 17 hillside homes and retrofitted the properties with drip lines as a short-term fix, Bigley said. The residents’ water bills have since dropped significantly, but there haven’t yet been any changes to the other 44 homes identified in the audit. Likeke Scheuer said DHHL is working with Ikaika Ohana to remove the common areas from each renter’s jurisdiction. 

“I don’t know why (DHHL) hadn’t made water a priority early on,” Kahui said.

Kailapa Community Association Pavilion Waimea DHHL Department of Hawaiian Home Lands water useage ocean pacific
Kailapa residents enjoy a view of the ocean but must pay high costs for drinking water access. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

DHHL is working to improve water access on the Leeward side of the Big Island, including a plan to purchase an unused well owned by Kamehameha Schools. However, the efforts have been slow to progress.

There are also ongoing DHHL projects to develop Hawaiian homelands on other islands for homesteading and to address infrastructure-related issues including water.

‘You Have The Land, But You Don’t Have The Water”

On Molokai, some Native Hawaiians have been given DHHL lots, but they haven’t been able to use or move onto the land because of a lack of infrastructure and water access. DHHL was still in the process of drafting a plan to develop land for awarded beneficiaries in the Naiiwa subdivision as of April.

“It’s a real heartbreaker because you have the land, but you don’t have the water,” said Glenn Teves, a county extension agent for Molokai for the University of Hawaii’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources and a Molokai homesteader.

In November 2020, DHHL began an upgrade costing over $35 million to the 80-year-old Hoolehua Water System on Molokai, which services approximately 500 homestead lots. It took over 12 years to break ground on the project, which was conceived in 2007.

“It has been a challenge to fulfill the promises in the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act,” Likeke Scheuer said.

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