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In historic decision, commission fundamentally changes water distribution system in West Maui

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(File)(Hawaii News Now)
Published: Jun. 28, 2021 at 10:51 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - In a historic decision and ruling over water rights in West Maui, the distribution system that was controlled by sugar plantations for decades is finally changing.

After a 20-year legal battle, there are now new rules for Na Wai Eha — “The Four Great Waters.”

The Hawaii Commission on Water Resources Management came up with the plan to manage the Waihe’e River, Waiehu Stream, Wailuku River and Waikapu Stream.

The commission revealed its new plan late Monday afternoon. The state says it’s the most comprehensive application of its kind in Hawaii history.

The plan recognizes traditional rights by preserving water for taro farming and customary practices.

Most of the stream flows will go to protect in-stream habitats.

A third can be used for municipal water supply and diversified agriculture.

“There’s no question that this is a historic move forward, in terms of shifting from the old plantation paradigm of draining rivers and streams dry to now recognizing the need to protect flowing rivers and streams,” said Isaac Moriwake, managing attorney of EarthJustice Hawaii.

“I think we’re just grateful that there is a decision,” added Lucienne de Naie, vice president of the Maui Tomorrow Foundation.

“Everyone will probably want to tweak it around the edges, but the commission does deserve a lot of credit.”

Moriwake said this is the final decision in the latest round of litigation following the closure of the last sugar plantation in Hawaii several years ago.

The attorney said an email was sent to over 100-plus parties involved in the case on Monday.

“And what was really important about this decision was that the commission fix some really basic legal errors that would have caused a lot of problems, not recognizing, for example, Native Hawaiian rights and the priority that Native Hawaiian water rights are supposed to have,” said Moriwake.

“So, they fix those and that was good.”

However, Moriwake and de Naie feel the commission could have gone further in protecting and restoring stream flows.

“And then there’s a lot of things to sort out because we’re not only dealing with how much water people can take out of the stream,” said Moriwake. “But first and foremost, how much water has to stay in the stream to protect the eco system, to protect Native Hawaiian rights, protect the near shore marine resources.”

“There’s going to be a lot of demands on those flows, you know, but there will be some flows in the stream,” said de Naie. “I hope the promises of more robust monitoring are really fulfilled because that’s been a problem since the 2014 decision.”

Hawaii News Now reached out to two of the stream’s big diverters — Mahi Pono and Wailuku Water Company — for comment. There was no immediate response.

CWRM says the new rules will rely on a high level of collaboration especially in times of drought.

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