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Kauaʻi taro farmers spearhead a measure to streamline the water lease process for loʻi kalo

taro kalo farm
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Hawaiʻi lawmakers are considering streamlining the process for taro farmers looking to secure freshwater for their crops — a complex and time-consuming task that often requires a lawyer.

The measure was prompted in part by a group of kalo farmers from Kauaʻi’s north shore who’ve spent thousands of hours over several years trying to secure a water lease under current state law.

Kalo farmers in Hanalei have for centuries depended on a traditional Hawaiian irrigation system, or ʻauwai, that has taken water from Waiʻoli Stream to their taro patches, or loʻi kalo.

University of Hawaiʻi Law Professor and Kalihiwai native Kapua Sproat says research traces the loʻi kalo back to the 15th century.

"The very same ʻauwai and loʻi kalo that these farmers steward, I have pictures of those from 150 years ago. So the system has been in place before Hawaiʻi was a state, before there was a conservation district, before laws like 171 existed," Sproat said.

Chapter 171 of the Hawaiʻi Revised Statute regulates the disposition of water leases in conservation districts — and carries with it a host of complex requirements including rights of entry permits, streamflow standards, environmental assessments and more.

The issue came to a head after a 2018 landslide and flooding in Hanalei.

During recovery efforts, the farmers realized the land was zoned conservation, and they would have to seek a lease to use water from Waiʻoli Stream.

Sproat says more than 30 law students and four attorneys have spent 2,000 hours working with taro farmers from the Waiʻoli Valley Taro Hui to secure the lease under Chapter 171.

Kalo farm kauai.jpeg
Waiʻoli Valley Taro Hui
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House Bill 1768 would provide an exemption to these requirements for those using water for traditional and customary kalo cultivation.

Sproat says, unlike off-stream users who divert water permanently, taro farmers cycle water through their patches and return it further downstream.

"Their water use is also pono, it’s in stream. It’s in watershed, it's non-polluting, and these are public trust purposes. So, the farmers have pertinent riparian and traditional and customary rights," she said.

Ian Hirokawa from the state Department of Land and Natural Resources says the agency supports the bill, but that it should not exclude commercial taro farmers.

"If you’re doing kalo cultivation in a manner that’s responsible and you know in a traditional way, it shouldn’t matter that you’re selling what you produce. It should apply equally to those who are doing it for subsistence needs or if that’s their living because ultimately, it’s about preserving the practice and strengthening it," Hirokawa said.

The House Committee on Agriculture advanced HB 1768, which will next be heard by the House Committee on Water and Land on Tuesday, Feb. 15 at 8:30 a.m. The bill also awaits a hearing with the committee on the Judiciary and Hawaiian Affairs.

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