After 130 years, kalo is harvested in Kahoma Valley

With the stream flowing again from mauka to makai, residents are able now to plant kalo

Lahaina waterman Archie Kalepa (left) and Kamehameha Schools Regional Director Venus Rosete-Medeiros work to free stalks of kalo Friday morning on Kalepa’s family property in Kahoma Valley. The nonprofit Ka Malu O Kahalawai and a group of volunteers that included keiki and kumu from Punana Leo o Lahaina harvested the valley’s first patch of kalo in 130 years. -- The Maui News / COLLEEN UECHI photo

KAHOMA VALLEY — When it came time to harvest Kahoma Valley’s first patch of kalo in 130 years, Tiare Lawrence was one of the first to jump into the loi.

Lawrence, who grew up in Lahaina, had been waiting for this day for a long time — it’s been a year since the kalo was planted, two years since Kahoma Stream started flowing from mauka to makai and decades since families have seen enough water in the valley to sustain kalo.

On Friday morning, the nonprofit Ka Malu O Kahalawai and a few dozen volunteers gathered for the first harvest, a promising symbol of what stream restoration advocates hope to see happen around Maui and the state.

“When we first started this project with Tiare and Kai (Keahi), the water was gray, hot, warm and nothing existed in that stream,” said Archie Kalepa, whose family owns the nearly 1-acre parcel where the kalo is planted. “Seeing the stream change from gray, hot to cold and clear was so amazing and transforming.”

Last July, residents planted two patches full of kalo, the first in the valley in 130 years. It was the first step in a long journey back to the Kahoma of the past, which was once a “long, extensive loi kalo complex system” farmed by kuleana landowners, said Hokuao Pellegrino, land administrator for Kamehameha Schools. Maps from the 1850s and 1860s also show that farmers were growing coffee, mango and sugar cane on a small scale in the valley.

Tiare Lawrence, who organized the community workdays to clean up the loi over the past two years, prepares to harvest the first stalks of kalo Friday morning. Lawrence said six different varieties have been planted in the loi. -- The Maui News / COLLEEN UECHI photo

Then came Pioneer Mill Co., which grew sugar on land leased from Kamehameha Schools from 1860 to 1999. Like Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. did in East Maui, Pioneer Mill created diversions that left West Maui streambeds dry and kalo farmers without a source of water.

But while companies elsewhere bulldozed ancient ditch systems and kalo patches to grow sugar, Kahoma Valley was “not conducive for plantations.” So, although Pioneer Mill did grow sugar cane around the area, they essentially left the lands intact, Pellegrino said.

“You walk up here, it’s like our kupuna left just yesterday,” he said. “So the infrastructure is still here. . . . We’ve just got to put them into use.”

Growing up in Lahaina, Lawrence said the only time she ever saw the stream running was after a big flood. Despite the less-than-sanitary conditions, she and the other neighborhood kids would jump in, thrilled to finally have a flowing river.

“I can’t express how lucky my kids are,” Lawrence said. “We never had this growing up as kids on the west side. When we would go take a drive out to Hana, we were like, ‘That’s loi, that’s kalo. That’s where poi comes from.’ Not knowing that our kupuna were so self-sustainable.”

Kaipo Kekona of Lahaina places a freshly harvested stalk along the edge of the loi. -- The Maui News / COLLEEN UECHI photo

Kalepa, whose family has held land in Kahoma for generations, said his sister had been trying to clean up their property with the hopes of eventually planting kalo. However, there was no water in the stream. About 10 years ago, he, Lawrence and Lahaina resident Kekai Keahi began fighting to get the water restored.

The stream intake sits on land belonging to Kamehameha Schools, which was allowing West Maui Land Co. to use the water, which recreational companies were in turn using for eco-tours, according to Pellegrino and Lawrence.

Kalepa, Keahi and Lawrence proposed an alternative plan to reopen the loi in the valley. After “a few years of back and forth,” Kamehameha Schools released about 60 percent of the stream, Lawrence said. Now, about 85 percent is being released, according to Pellegrino.

“It took five years for the water to saturate enough of the aquifer to where we could have consistent mauka-to-makai flow,” Lawrence said. “That’s how thirsty the aquifer was.”

Once the stream began flowing consistently from mauka to makai two years ago, Lawrence began organizing community workdays on Kalepa’s property to clear the invasive plants. Thanks to volunteers, including 40 students from the University of Hawaii Maui College, they were able to plant the kalo last July — much sooner than expected.

Volunteers, including kumu from Punana Leo o Lahaina, work together to harvest kalo Friday morning. -- The Maui News / COLLEEN UECHI photo

Lawrence said they started small with two patches, and three more are now ready. She hoped to eventually expand to Kamehameha Schools lands nearby. Land manager Keith Chang said Kamehameha Schools hasn’t yet decided whether to lease the land, though he added that the school has a lot of partnerships with community groups that don’t involve leases.

In the long term, Kalepa said one of the goals is to open up the old auwai, or ditch system. Water for the loi is currently being fed through pipes. Another goal is to start partnerships with schools to allow students to connect to the land and learn about farming, archaeology and marine biology.

For Kalepa, one of the greatest lessons the stream has to teach is this: “If we put our place first, before we put the people, then the people will survive,” he said. “If we don’t put the water back in the streams, we’re going to lose what we have. I did not realize how important that was until I started coming up here every day once a week checking the water, looking at the stream, just looking at fish, knowing the stream is alive.”

The significance of Kahoma flowing again “goes way beyond this taro patch,” Kalepa added. It’s a literal trickle-down effect to what fishermen are witnessing downstream. Lawrence said Kahoma now has four of the five o’opu (goby) species; most streams only have one or two. Longtime fishermen at Mala Wharf are seeing schools of fish that haven’t been around in years.

Keahi said he was watching the stream flow past Panda Express in Lahaina and was surprised to see mullet, one of the species that is now growing and thriving thanks to the restored stream flow. The state Division of Aquatic Resources and The Nature Conservancy are helping to collect data on the stream’s effects.

Keiki wander along Kahoma Stream after a morning of hard work in the kalo patch. Organizers say another benefit to restoring the stream flow is providing a place for kids to swim and play. -- The Maui News / COLLEEN UECHI photo

With the state Commission on Water Resource Management preparing to examine in-stream flow standards for Kahoma, Kanaha and Honokowai, Lawrence pointed out that the work at Kahoma is vital, because “the more restoration, the more ecosystems that are restored, the harder it’s going to be to take that benefit away from us.”

“Kahoma is going to be a critical player in stream restoration across the state because of the data we’re collecting,” Lawrence said. “We are setting up a template of what stream restoration looks like and setting up the standard that Mother Nature is so resilient if you give her life.”

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

COMMENTS