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Water to be restored to five Molokai streams

Flow standards set for the waterways that were often dry for almost a century

East Kawela Stream on Molokai is shown. The state water commission voted Tuesday to fully restore the stream after more than a century of diversions. Photo courtesy DLNR

Water will be restored to five streams on Molokai that for more than a century were almost fully diverted and often dry, according to the state Department of Land and Natural Resources.

The state Commission on Water Resource Management voted Tuesday to set interim in-stream flow standards that will fully or partially restore East Kawela, East Kawela Tributary, West Kawela, Lualohe and Waikolu Streams. The commission committed to a goal of full stream restoration for East Kawela Stream.

“I want to acknowledge the young people here attending these meetings and advocating for stream restoration and a healthier community,” Commissioner Aurora Kagawa-Viviani said. “We have an opportunity to restore life to an area and this is moving us towards true equality.”

Residents and community groups submitted about 140 pages of written testimony and also spoke during hours of oral testimony at the commission’s meeting on Tuesday, urging full restoration of Kawela Stream.

Moloka’i No Ka Heke, which advocates for the protection of Kawela and other streams, had formally requested stream restoration in the summer of 2019.

Lualohe is one of five streams on Molokai that will be either fully or partially restored following a state water commission decision on Tuesday. Photo courtesy DLNR

“After over a hundred years of Kawela waters being diverted across the island and wasted, we finally said enough is enough. The big ranching and ag operations are gone, and we couldn’t just sit and watch this precious water be thrown away,” Walter Ritte, a member of Moloka’i No Ka Heke, said in a news release issued Tuesday by Earthjustice, the nonprofit environmental law organization representing the group.

Teave Ho’omoe Heen of Kawela said the ahupua’a of Kawela, during the peak of its time, was one of the most abundant water sources on the island.

“I can recall moments of my childhood swimming and playing and learning the importance of not just Kawela river but all kahawai, rivers,” Heen, who is also a member of Moloka’i No Ka Heke, said in written testimony.

She and her siblings would go to the muliwai of Kawela river and see fish, crustaceans, birds and other species.

“Kawela river needs to flow, for the health of our only aquifer, for the health of our fish, limu and animals that rely on it, for the health of our people who live the subsistence lifestyle and for the overall health of our island,” Heen said.

Others questioned the amount of water being diverted to lands still known as Molokai Ranch on the island’s drier west side.

“Kawela Stream really should be fully restored, because the data shows that the Ranch doesn’t need anywhere near the amount of water it diverts,” Moloka’i No Ka Heke member Lohiao Paoa of Kawela said in the Earthjustice news release after the decision. “We know from the Ranch’s own data that the west end’s needs can be met without taking any water from Kawela. We thank the Commission for keeping full restoration on the table, but we know there is much more work to be done.”

To fully restore East Kawela Stream, the state will take a phased approach, according to DLNR. This will include follow-up from Molokai Properties, which owns and operates the Mountain Water System. It is tasked with investigating water system loss, including reservoir evaporation and analyzing if wastewater reuse is a potential alternative water source to meet its nonpotable needs.

The Mountain Water System consists of seven diversions on various streams in the Kawela, Kaunakakai and Waikolu hydrologic units and includes 50 million gallons in reservoir storage, according to the DLNR.

The commission will revisit additional modifications to diversions and the interim in-stream flow standards in 180 days, the DLNR said.

“This is not the first time we have an aspirational water code positioned against 100 years of water diversions, and I’m convinced it is the right thing to do,” Commissioner Michael Buck, who supported the full restoration of Kawela Stream, said during Tuesday’s meeting.

“I believe there are options from the landowner to be able to be more efficient,” he added.

Commissioner Neil Hannahs said this is expected of water operators and diverters.

“We are in a new paradigm of water resource management and stewardship that requires water systems to be as efficient as possible,” Hannahs said. “We expect that from water operators and diverters.”

Molokai Properties said in an email statement Wednesday evening that “MPL’s mountain water system supports ranch operations and local businesses and residents.”

“Under the Commission’s order, the system may also support the Department of Hawaiian Homelands’ Kalamaula Tract. MPL looks forward to the continued opportunity to work with the Commission on Water Resource Management, the Department of Hawaiian Homelands and the Molokai community to achieve a balanced outcome.”

The commission expects that the restored stream flows will have dramatic benefits for groundwater recharge and nearshore ecosystems as well as restoring coastal spring flows critical for limu growth, according to a news release.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.

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