One of Hawaiʻi’s largest water rights cases has come to an end on Maui, possibly signaling a turning point in the stateʻs management of public streams.
Waikapū kalo farmer Hōkūao Pellengrino has spent nearly 16 years fighting to restore water from Wailuku streams to his taro patches.
He made his case – his closing arguments – to the Hawaii Water Commission last week. The commission will now decide how much water stays in the streams for marine life and farms like Pellengrino’s and how much can be diverted for larger-scale commercial use.
"I mean it’s kinda bittersweet in a sense that our community has worked tirelessly to get to this point," Pellengrino said. "You know people, ‘ohana, friends, kupuna have passed waiting for us to get to this point and the decision that is hopefully going to come sooner than later."
He says the commission’s decision will be a significant milestone – one that could re-establish traditional agricultural systems which once thrived in the Wailuku district.
There are others competing for the water – dozens had been waiting to use water from the streams. Then came a last-minute request from Mahi Pono, a Maui diversified agricultural venture. It asked to take over a request filed by the now defunct HC&S sugar plantation for millions of gallons of water each day.
Earthjustice attorney Isaac Moriwake has been working on the Maui case for nearly two decades.
"Fifteen years ago, we were told that what are you guys doing trying to put that water back in the rivers and streams? Thatʻs not the way things work in this town. Forget about it," he said.
He said the streams flowing through Maui’s Wailuku district were some of the first to be diverted for sugar plantations that once dominated the economy of the island.
"They started taking not only the land but draining the rives and streams dry to feed their sugar plantations," said Moriwake. "And that supported the shift from water as a public trust under Hawaiian law to water turned into the plantationʻs private property. It happened, it started here in Nā Wai ʻEhā."
Nā Wai ʻEhā is the four great waters of Wailuku. The streams and rivers are known by that name.
Today, some view the ag venture Mahi Pono as a successor to the plantations.
"Theyʻre following you know predecessors that really didnʻt have the mindset of good land management, stewardship of our natural and cultural resources, and so the trust factor in the community. Itʻs going to take some time for people to see whether they are different than their predecessors and that they mean well," Pellengrino said.
Mahi Pono may have taken a step in that direction. Before the water commission as it made its case for water, the company announced a deal with taro farmers and native Hawaiians to take less water than it first sought and to use the water only for crops.
Shan Tsutsui, Mahi Pono’s senior vice president of operations, told the commission that the agreement supports a restoration of the streams while allowing the venture to farm fresh and local food for Maui.
Mahi Pono declined a request for an interview, but Earthjustice attorney Moriwake noted the moment.
"It’s an important step forward. I want to emphasize that the work begins now to make good on the commitments."
Thatʻs if the state water commission decides to give Mahi Pono – and farmers like Pellengrino – any water. A decision is expected in the next several months.