The fight over Maui’s water rights has intensified after deadly fire

KIHEI, MAUI — Just up the mountain from Lahaina where so many of his friends lost their homes, Ku’uleialoha Palakiko recently walked through his family’s ancestral farm land, which is thick with tall dry grasses.

“We live in a super dry area. It’s a tinder box here,” said Palakiko, a Native Hawaiian farmer. Nearby, he is irrigating plots of taro that are fed by a small stream diverted from the Kaua’ula Stream flowing from the mountain above, in a system called an ‘auwai that is centuries old.

“If we take too much water,” he explained, “the land is depleted. Then we rectify that by putting more water back where it needs to be.”

He and other Native Hawaiians in Maui have spent years fighting for a greater say in how one of their most valued resources — water — is diverted and allocated. Now, in the wake of wind-whipped blazes that ripped through Maui, they say they are being scapegoated by Hawaii government officials and developers, who say water needs to flow more freely for fire protection.

The day after the fire, the administration of Hawaii Gov. Josh Green (D) asked the state Supreme Court to relax stream flow limits in central Maui to free up more water for fire suppression. A high-ranking state water commission official was reassigned after a prominent developer claimed his request to fill a reservoir in anticipation of fires was delayed. Two residents sued Monday over the reassignment.

Hōkūao Pellegrino, a farmer in Waikapu, said the fire and what he sees as the resulting blame game are being used to “undo all of the work that our communities have fought so hard and advocated so hard to do.” The result, he added, could undermine Native Hawaiian efforts “to ensure that our landscape is no longer that barren, dry, arid, fire prone region that it has become.”

It’s long-simmering issue — with roots in Lahaina’s plantation days — and it has escalated in the aftermath of the deadliest U.S. wildfire in the last century.

Native Hawaiians say they are trying to go back to a less-flammable landscape that was wiped out by sugar fields and other plantation farming, leaving behind open fields covered with nonnative grasses that serve as fuel for wildfires. Some also say they need water in streams for fire suppression where they live; Palakiko’s extended family lost homes in a 2018 blaze after nearby fire hydrants ran out of water.

Developers say that some regulations have hampered efforts to fill reservoirs with water that could be used to protect Lahaina homes and subdivisions.

Two men describe their harrowing experience the day a wildfire erupted in Lahaina, Hawaii. The men hid behind a rock wall for eight hours to escape the flames. (Video: Reshma Kirpalani/The Washington Post)

Since the fire, Gov. Green has repeatedly highlighted the ongoing water conflict on Maui in remarks to reporters. He has suspended portions of the water code “necessary to respond to the emergency,” and has signaled he may further relax water regulations throughout West Maui.

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Green has acknowledged that using water for cultural purposes is important, but has said the “stalemate” over water policy has left dry areas of the island vulnerable to blazes. His office did not respond to inquiries from The Washington Post.

The governor directly addressed water activists during a live-streamed interview with a Honolulu-based news site, Civil Beat: “Look guys, we just lost lives because we don’t have a water policy or a statewide plan that protects the land from burning.”

He also has said that “people have been fighting against the release of water to fight fires” — a comment that has outraged community members who say it’s a misrepresentation.

“In my eight years on the water commission, I never heard, in a single hearing, that testimony from anyone in the community,” said Kamanamaikalani Beamer, who served two terms on the state’s water commission starting in 2013.

He added that the Native Hawaiian community around Lahaina “has fought for literally generations to seek justice and balance for the streams and the community and other usages.”

“In an emergency crisis, we’re jumping back to old paradigms that didn’t work for that place, and that brought us to this point.”

Although each U.S. state has its own rules, water is a public trust in Hawaii, a legacy of its days as a sovereign kingdom. The State Commission on Water Resource Management sets standards for the amount of water that must flow through streams; citizens can petition over those.

The legal framework around water rights has “been one of the few tools available to Native Hawaiians to fight against the commercial forces that have been bearing down on the islands for the last 50 years,” said Jonathan Scheuer, a water policy consultant and co-author of the book “Water and Power in West Maui.”

Lahaina, once a capital of the Hawaiian kingdom, has always been hot. But before Western occupation, it was an abundant agricultural landscape with lush wetlands. An inland pond surrounded Moku’ula, a tiny island that was home to Hawaiian royalty.

Struggles over water management heightened with land privatization in the 19th century. Ancient waterways and irrigation systems established by Hawaiians were diverted for the sugar cane plantations that took over large swaths of land in West Maui. Sugar cane, which gave way to tourism in the 20th century, dried out the landscape. A dried up Moku’ula was filled in, and then later buried beneath a baseball field.

“The plantations’ need for water, to water the fallow fields of the dry plains areas, required massive diversions that immediately upset the balance of the ecosystem,” Palakiko said. “And that we’ve paid the penalty of that.”

The sugar cane planation Pioneer Mill in Lahaina closed in 1999, and private developers, notably West Maui Land, bought up many of those former properties and took over their ditch irrigation systems. Water from streams was diverted into pipes and reservoirs for new subdivisions.

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Over the past two decades, locals have battled with that developer and the water companies it owns, increasingly securing more water to bring ancestral farming back to life. Protesters that have assembled at new trenches dug by West Maui Land have been arrested.

The state’s water commission has warned the company it would issue massive fines for over-tapping water systems. Some families who have farmed Kaua’ula Valley for generations have filed and won lawsuits over streams running dry and land title disputes.

The latest controversy began the day after the fires. Glenn Tremble, a West Maui Land executive, wrote to the state water commission complaining that a request to divert water to a company reservoir was delayed for several hours after an agency official told him to first check with a downstream taro farmer, per regulation.

Tremble told The Post that the company’s subdivisions rely on the reservoir water for fire suppression, and that the company issued a preemptive request ahead of an unpredictable blaze. In the moment, he argued, it was unclear whether helicopters could dump water on hotspots, like they did during a November 2022 fire in an area above Lahaina when the Maui Fire Department tapped company reservoirs.

“Based on experience, we knew that flareups happen, wind strength and direction changes, fires spread quickly, our reservoir levels were low and water from our reservoirs is used by [the Maui Fire Department] for fire control,” Tremble wrote to The Post via email. He added the company needs to have water available to the fire department before firefighters need it. “We also knew that having water for individual homes for irrigation and fire suppression can help to slow or stop fires.”

Critics say filling the developer’s reservoirs with water would not have helped put out the fire in Lahaina. The hydrant system in Lahaina is supplied by the county water system, according to the fire department. And high winds made it too treacherous for helicopters to pull water from reservoirs to drop water on hotspots, as they have done in the past.

In his letter to the commission, Tremble acknowledged “we cannot know whether filling our reservoirs at 1:00 p.m. (as opposed to not at all) would have changed” the outcome. He asked to lift rules on water flow to fill their reservoirs in the area during this emergency period, and “other regulations.”

It became a political controversy after local media published the letter. The water commission official was “redeployed” to allow the agency to “focus on the necessary work to assist the people of Maui recover from the devastation of the wildfires,” the Department of Land and Natural Resources said in a statement. The agency cautioned against suggesting the official “did anything wrong.”

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But the reassignment alarmed West Maui community members. Two filed a lawsuit Monday against the commission office and chair, alleging a violation of the state’s open meetings law. The Hawaii attorney general’s office said it plans to seek a dismissal and called the complaint “wholly without merit.”

Tremble pushed back against claims that the fire is being used as pretext for removing water regulations. “In the short term, we have only asked for some water to maintain some levels in the reservoirs for fire protection and suppression, including irrigation,” he said in his email.

Climate change has amplified the tension over water in Maui, with rising temperatures, droughts and increased severe weather events leaving Maui more vulnerable to wildfires.

The pressure to build new affordable housing in Hawaii, where the cost of living is incredibly high — as well as the ongoing influx of new residents from out of state — has resulted in more development in potentially dangerous fire zones. Green, who promised to increase housing when he assumed office in December, declared a housing emergency last month that suspended several laws to ease building in the state.

But resources are limited and the demand outstrips the supply on the islands, some longtime locals say. Several family members of Hawaiian community organizer Tiare Lawrence lost their homes in the Lahaina blaze.

“We need the water to be available for fire suppression,” she said. “But we also have to factor in that we’re tapped out in resources in West Maui. Development continues to go and go and go.”

Palakiko agrees: “That’s the most critical question that we’ve been asking recently, is where is the threshold?”

Last year, after impassioned testimony, the state assumed responsibility over regulating water in West Maui, and opened up the process for public input. The local Native Hawaiian community celebrated it as a key victory.

But in recent weeks, after the fire, Gov. Green said that he “foresees” changing or entirely eliminating that designation. “Under emergency rules, I have to do that,” he said during an interview with Civil Beat on Thursday.

Such a move means that West Maui “will turn back into the Wild West,” said Lance Collins, an environmental lawyer who represents several families who have sued over water issues.

“We’re only one week from this disaster. People are still grieving, planning funerals,” Lawrence said. “The government needs to focus on helping the families.”

As Palakiko walked his lands, he looked out to toward the ocean, to the devastated downtown area of Lahaina where his friends lost so much and are now running community relief sites for the displaced.

Immediate needs demand his attention, like putting tarps on the roofs in town to protect against any future rains. But he also keeps watch over the water and how it flows through his ancestral land.

This water is “more than a resource, it’s kuleana,” he said. “A responsibility.”

Brianna Sacks contributed to this report.


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