Molokai group seeks to restore stream flows

Earthjustice files petition with state water commission

A Molokai community group took legal action Monday to restore flows to four streams historically diverted by Molokai Ranch to the west side.

Earthjustice, on behalf of grassroots organization Moloka’i No Ka Heke, filed a petition with the state Commission on Water Resource Management to amend the in-stream flow standards for the Kawela, Kaunakakai, Manawainui and Waikolu streams. The three-fold legal action also includes a citizen complaint against waste of the resource and a petition for declaratory action that asks the commission to require the ranch to follow the provisions of the state water code.

“Molokai Ranch has been taking water from these streams for far too long with no accountability to the needs and rights of the aina and the people of the island,” Earthjustice attorney Mahesh Cleveland said Monday. “It’s time to return these waters to their natural flow, and for the ranch to remove or remediate its diversion dams.”

Molokai Properties Ltd., doing business as Molokai Ranch, said in a statement Monday that “we have just heard about this and do not have any details at this time. We are therefore unable to comment.”

All four streams are located in the central region of the island. Kawela, Kaunakakai and Manawainui streams flow from the windward mountain range to the south shore, while Waikolu Stream flows from the mountains to the north shore, Earthjustice said.

Walter Ritte, a Hoolehua resident and member of Moloka’i No Ka Heke, said that Molokai Ranch installed seven intakes on mountain streams in the early 1900s and is only using two of them today. The community group wants Molokai Ranch to clean up the dams they’re not using and restore stream flows to the rivers they’re still diverting.

“Everybody knows on Maui they’re fighting for their streams to have interim in-stream flow standards,” Ritte said. “So we’re following up on what’s happening on Maui.”

Ritte said the diversions impact the stream life as well as the aquifers in the area. They also impact the fishponds along the shoreline that are fed by these freshwater streams. The Waikolu Stream provides water to the Molokai Irrigation System that services farmers in Hoolehua, and less water for the irrigation system means less for the farmers.

Moloka’i No Ka Heke member and Kawela resident Lohiao Paoa said Monday that “returning the water to Kawela ahupuaa will bring back life that it once had before.”

“It was known to provide for our people in the past, and it’s a crucial part of Molokai’s water future,” Paoa said. “Kawela Stream deserves respect.”

Cleveland and Ritte said the water was used to irrigate pineapple lands and supply cattle ranching operations in the early 1900s. In the late 1980s, the state Legislature enacted a water code that helped guarantee state constitutional protections for freshwater resources. But since then, the ranch has not followed the water code provisions and “has simply operated as they always have,” Cleveland said. He said that the ranch has not abandoned diversions that are no longer in use and has failed to document years of diversions as required by the commission.

“All we’re really asking to do is for them to really comply with the requirements under the law since the water code was enacted,” Cleveland said. “I think there’s a tendency to view these types of community actions as controversial, and the Molokai community, they’re known for sticking up for their rights, for the interest of the people of Molokai. But this is in fact entirely noncontroversial. All it is is let’s enforce the law.”

Cleveland said that the flow standards currently in place were “rubber-stamped, status quo diversion amounts that the ranch was doing at the time that the water code was enacted.” Earthjustice and the Molokai community are looking for updated, scientific-based stream flow standards.

Cleveland said that the next step is basically to wait for the commission to take action. Staff will need to go out to the streams, study the flows and surrounding ecosystems and then decide what the proper stream levels should be. In the past, petitions like these were not acted upon for years. But recently, the commission has tried to be proactive and restore flows to long-diverted streams before community groups take legal action. They did it in March 2018 for four West Maui streams, and Cleveland is hopeful that they’ll act “expeditiously” on the Molokai stream issue.

“This is not an attempt to lambaste or vilify the commission,” Cleveland said. “It is simply us on behalf of the Molokai community asking them to begin the process of establishing the flow standards.”

He added that the goal is not to cut off water from west end users but to make sure the diversion and use of the streams are reasonable under the law.

Molokai Ranch’s 55,575 acres have been on the market for more than a year now. Singapore-based owner GL Ltd. has been trying to sell the ranch for $260 million. Carvill Sotheby’s International Realty, which is listing the property, could not be reached for comment Monday afternoon.

Ritte said the community has been trying to gather a hui of conservation-minded buyers who could purchase the land. Currently, there are two major organizations interested, but Ritte declined to say who they were for now.

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


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