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Mother Nature leaves shocking damage to ancient Waihee ‘auwai

More than 100 people came to help restore water to taro farmers

Charlie Palakiko (from left), Keith Keahi, Kapono Antunez and Curen Ohama (foreground) work to clear debris and help restore the walls of the north Waihee kuleana ‘auwai on Sunday. The traditional ditch system was heavily damaged during recent flooding and has cut off more than a dozen kalo-growing families from their water source. Photos courtesy Tiare Lawrence

Maui kalo farmers are working to restore an ancient ‘auwai in Waihee that was damaged during the recent storm and flood — cutting off farmers from the water that feeds their lo’i.

More than 100 people showed up Sunday to help the Waihee community remove debris and rebuild the ditch system, which supports at least 15 families cultivating about 15 to 20 acres of kalo, said Miki’ala Pua’a-Freitas, co-owner and founder of Kapuna Farms in Waihee.

“Every single family below depends on this one system,” Pua’a-Freitas said Monday. “As of today, 100 percent of the lo’i are dry because we have no water due to the damage.”

Fed by the Waihee River, the ‘auwai is about a mile long, beginning in the valley and ending at Kapuna Farms along Kahekili Highway. During the storm on Feb. 18, the overflowing Waihee River not only broke the po’owai (the stone dam at the head of the ‘auwai) but also destroyed about 125 feet of the ‘auwai and washed away lo’i in its path.

“A lot of that is because of the invasive java plum trees,” said Tiare Lawrence, one of the community members organizing the cleanup. “During heavy rains, they have shallow root systems, so they fall and they create these massive dams. And when they break, the water tends to flood over the stream banks. So that happened in Waihee last week.”

More than 100 people, including kalo farmers from across the island, gathered to lend a hand Sunday. Workdays are scheduled from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday as well as March 11, 17 and 25.

On Sunday, community members — including kalo farmers from all over Maui — dislodged rocks from the river and began work on the walls. While the river has widened, Pua’a-Freitas said it’s still flowing toward the head of the ‘auwai and that workers were “not moving the river or changing the river, just repairing the walls that were damaged.” The job was done by hand not only to follow tradition but to keep sediment from spilling into the ocean.

“For me, it’s not just about the quick fix,” Pua’a-Freitas said. “It’s about doing it properly and really looking at the long term. . . . We all want water back in our lo’i kalo, but we just know it’s going to be a long road.”

Kapuna Farms is located at the foot of the valley and includes goats, hens, an apiary for rescued bee hives and some lo’i. However, the farm’s kalo operations are mostly centered in the valley (about 2 to 3 acres) with many of the other farmers. Pua’a-Freitas said her active lo’i were spared, but the ones that she and co-owner Moana Wietecha have been restoring were “wiped out.” Their neighbor lost about an acre “that’s now just river.”

Pua’a-Freitas grew up cleaning the ‘auwai with her siblings and said while the damage was upsetting, she was trying to count the positives.

“You can’t fight Mother Nature,” she said. “You just pick up the pieces she’s left and go from there.”

Hokuao Pellegrino, president of the Hui o Na Wai ‘Eha, said he’s not aware of a historical Hawaiian name for the ditch system, but that it’s commonly been referred to as the north Waihee kuleana ‘auwai. It’s likely been around at least 400 years, though that’s “a pretty conservative” estimate, Pellegrino said.

The traditional irrigation system fed all of the kuleana taro farmers on the north side of Waihee River, the largest of “the four great waters” flowing from the West Maui Mountains. Kuleana farmers south of the river, meanwhile, get their water from two ditches maintained by Wailuku Water Co. and the former Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co.

On a normal day, the base flow for Waihee River can range from 24 million to 30 million gallons per day, compared to 12 to 16 mgd for the Wailuku River, 4 mgd for the Waikapu Stream and 3.5 mgd for the Waiehu Stream. While there are no real-time gauges on the Waihee River to measure the recent storm flow, Pellegrino said the damage was “comparable to Iao” in September 2016. When he saw the ‘auwai, he was “just shocked.” Both he and Pua’a-Freitas referred to it as a “100-year storm.”

“I just didn’t think that could’ve ever happened,” Pellegrino said. “That ‘auwai is so big. It had a huge bank that protected it. There was a big chunk of land that was gone.”

Lawrence said the plan is to have the water back in the ‘auwai by the end of March. A community workday will be held from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday as well as on March 11, 17 and 25. Volunteers should bring gloves and work shoes and park at 2644 Kahekili Highway. Instructions will be given from there.

Volunteers are encouraged to bring potluck dishes. Anyone willing to donate food and drinks can email tiare4maui@gmail.com or call 276-7685.

Donations also can be made at paypal.me/kokuawaihee or by visiting Hui o Na Wai ‘Eha’s Facebook page.

“We’re so dependent on importing food from the continent, and maintaining these traditional ‘auwai systems guarantees us that we’ll have poi on our table,” Lawrence said.

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.

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