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Kaua?i Stream Restoration Complicated by Diversion Dependent End Users

Ku'uwehi Hiraishi

As Kaua?i residents continue to deal with the impacts of heavy rain and flooding, we want to turn your attention to another water issue on the Garden Isle....one that residents have been dealing with for more than a century. HPR Reporter Ku?uwehi Hiraishi has more.

For nearly 150 years, fresh water on Kauai has been diverted from streams—first to cultivate sugar cane---and more recently to power hydroelectric plants. Now the state Water Commission is considering reducing the amount of water diverted from two streams flowing from Wai?ale?ale. 

Credit Brian Walter / Flickr
Wai'ale'ale is considered one of the wettest places on Earth. Water flowing from this summit feed into streams that have been diverted - first sugarcane and more recently for hydropower generation.

Koloa farmer and rancher Arryl Kaneshiro says the decision will be quite the balancing act.

“On one hand, you have the desire to keep more water in the stream," says Kaneshiro, "And on the other you have a plethora of other uses including hydros, which generate cleaner and less expensive electric for the island; a surface water treatment facility which provides potable drinking water to residents; and agriculture."

Kaneshiro is a county councilman and employee of Grove Farms. He?s also a fourth-generation farmer and is concerned about the decision's potential impact on the island's food security.

“We hear a lot about people wanting to protect and preserve agriculture," says Kaneshiro, "The state has a goal to double food production by 2020. You hear the terms ‘grow what we eat, buy local, eat local, support your local farms.”

Credit Grove Farms
Grove Farms
Farmers Nap Seechachet owns and operates O.K. King Farms on Kaua'i with irrigation water diverted from Wai'ale'ale and Waikoko Streams. Reducing the amount of diverted water could have an impact on his operation.

Lowering the amount of diverted water could have an impact on end users like Kaneshiro who have become accustomed to the water. This includes the island?s utility – Kaua?i Island Utility Cooperative and the county?s municipal water system, which provides drinking water to an estimated 15,000 island residents.

Credit Kaua'i Island Utility Cooperative
Kaua'i Island Utility Cooperative
One of the streams that feed the Waiahi Hydroelectric Power Plant on Kaua'i.

Koloa resident Bridget Hammerquist wants to fully restore the natural flow of Wai?ale?ale and Waikoko Streams.

“It would be wonderful and it would probably not hurt the power production at all,” says Hammerquist, “I?d rather see lo?i back in cultivation. I?d rather see people with jobs. I?d rather see sustainble food grown.”

The Commission has been weighing competing uses of limited stream water statewide for three decades now. EarthjusticeAttorney Leina?ala Lee says the Commission’s responsibility is to protect water as a public trust.

“So really in this proceeding, the primary question is what is the minimum amount of water that needs to be kept in the stream for public trust uses,” says Ley.

This includes water to support fish and wildlife, recreation, native Hawaiian gathering rights, and more. Hydropower generation within the stream would also be considered a public trust purpose. But in this case, the water diverted by KIUC does not return to the stream.

The Commission has yet to make a decision

Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi is a general assignment reporter at Hawaiʻi Public Radio. Her commitment to her Native Hawaiian community and her fluency in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi has led her to build a de facto ʻōiwi beat at the news station. Send your story ideas to her at khiraishi@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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