With Moloka'i Ranch Up for Sale, Community Seeks To Reclaim Streams

Jul 4, 2019

Moloka'i No Ka Heke member Walter Ritte and Earthjustice attorney Leina'ala Ley on a site visit to the dam diverting flows from Kawela Stream in Moloka'i.
Credit Isaac Moriwake / Earthjustice

The possible sale of Molokaʻi Ranch is driving a community-led effort to end century-old diversions of the island’s stream water. The ranch continues to use water although its operations were shut down more than a decade ago. 

Molokaʻi Ranch has been on the market for nearly a year now. The 55,000-acre ranch on Molokaʻi’s west end was once the island’s largest employer, but closed in 2008. Hoʻolehua resident and activist Walter Ritte has opposed the water diversions over four decades.

Credit Molokai Ranch

“We never saw eye-to-eye about what the future of Molokaʻi was going to be,” says Ritte. “And now, the ranch is up for sale. We figured as a community, we go try and solve all the problems that we’ve been trying to solve all these years.”

Buying the ranch, which is listed at $260 million, is not in the cards. So Ritte and his organization, Molokaʻi Nō Ka Heke, are working with the environmental group Earthjustice to restore waterflow to four streams diverted by Molokaʻi Ranch.

Aerial view of Southeast Moloka'i.
Credit Eric Tessmer / CC By 3.0

“As it stands right now, two of those streams are currently diverted, actively,” said Mahesh Cleveland, an attorney wth Earthjustice. “And theyʻre being used to fill these gigantic reservoirs that the ranch built in the late 90s in order to supply their proposed developments, which never happened, and in order to supply their ranch operation, which has since ceased to operate.”

Crowd at a press conference announcing the petition to restore stream flow to south and central Moloka'i.
Credit Earthjustice

Molokaʻi Ranch could not be reached for comment. But officials said in a statement to Maui News that it had just recently learned about the challenge to the stream diversion and had no immediate comment.

Earlier this week Earthjustice petitioned the state Commission on Water Resource Management to restore stream flow to Kawela, Kaunakakai, Manawainui, and Waikolu Streams.

Kawela Stream when flows are released.
Credit Earthjustice

The commission has been studying the streams for two years but doesn’t anticipate any immediate decision on the issue. Still Cleveland is hopeful.

“The water commission now is much more proactive and much more responsive than theyʻve ever been in the past,” said Cleveland.

Ritte said, in many ways, fresh water will be the key to Molokaʻi’s future.

Dried up Kawela stream bed.
Credit Earthjustice

“In order for us to be ʻāina momona on Molokaʻi to be able to feed ourselves and for us to have subsistence lifestyles and those kinds of things that we proudly try to do here on Molokaʻi, there’s no substitute for us to have rivers that actually flow to the ocean,” said Ritte.

He wants to make sure any potential buyer of Molokai Ranch isn’t under the impression that water diversions are guaranteed in the future.