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Damaged ditch that cut off farmers’ water to be fixed

Waihee families have been waiting since 2018 flood took out portion of the system

A photo shows the proposed repairs to a 128-foot damaged section of the auwai in the Waihee River. Photos courtesy of Hui o Na Wai ‘Eha

Hokuao Pellegrino remembers the day that powerful floodwaters burst through Waihee Valley, breaking a dam at the top of a centuries-old ditch system and cutting off water for kalo farmers downstream.

“The roar of the river and the boulders the size of cars tumbling down the Waihee River had not been experienced for likely over 100 years,” Pellegrino said Tuesday. “The flood was truly an unprecedented event that caused damage to pre-Western contact and historic North Waihee Kuleana Auwai, loi kalo systems, homes as well as properties.”

The Feb. 18, 2018 flood took out 25 acres of loi kalo cultivation on kuleana lands for more than four years, said Pellegrino, president of Hui o Na Wai ‘Eha, a nonprofit focused on restoring mauka-to-makai stream flow in the area covering “The Four Great Waters” of Waihee River, Waiehu Stream, Wailuku River and Waikapu Stream.

Now, the hui is working to rebuild the auwai to restore water to farmers and help protect the system against future flooding.

On Tuesday, the state Commission on Water Resource Management unanimously approved a permit for the repairs, which Pellegrino said “will greatly help our Native Hawaiian community loi kalo farmers to return to the land to cultivate the food of their kupuna.”

Community members stand around the poowai, an old sugar plantation concrete intake, at the North Waihee Auwai in the Waihee River in 2017, prior to a 2018 flood that damaged the centuries-old ditch system.

The hui hopes to work with Mahi Pono and kalo farmers to reconstruct a rock wall 128 feet long, up to 8 feet wide and up to 7 1/2 feet high at the original location of its poowai, or intake. An existing sluice gate would be used to control and divert nearly 1.4 million gallons of water per day from the stream to be used for more than 9 acres of loi kalo as well as diversified agriculture and domestic uses, according to commission documents.

Mahi Pono plans to use an excavator to restore the damaged section of the dry-stacked auwai wall. No cement or PVC pipe will be used, according to the documents. Hui o Na Wai ‘Eha board members and kalo farmers will also assist with restacking the section of stone wall using rocks that had fallen into the stream near the damaged section. Once the work is complete, the community will open the sluice gate to allow water to flow to previously approved permit holders.

The roughly 16-mile-long Waihee River has a median flow of about 34 mgd. The location of the project just below Spreckels Ditch has an interim in-stream flow standard of 11.4 mgd, which includes the 10 mgd needed for wildlife and 1.4 mgd for traditional and customary practices.

The 1.2-mile North Waihee Auwai was built around 1500, according to commission documents.

Prior to the 2018 storm, Waihee was growing more kalo than Waikapu, Wailuku and Waiehu combined, Pellegrino said.

Waihee River is seen in the same location following massive flooding in February 2018 that took out the North Waihee Auwai intake.

“Historically, prior to sugarcane, that wasn’t the case,” he said. “All Na Wai Eha was massive taro patch cultivation, but in terms of more recent times, Waihee has really been the piko or core of kalo cultivation in Na Wai Eha. So when the flood happened in 2018 that took out more than 25 acres, which is more than 50 percent of all the taro cultivation in Na Wai Eha went offline.”

Miki’ala Pua’a-Freitas was born and raised “at the foot of this auwai” to a family that’s been stewarding the system for generations and used the water to cultivate loi kalo. Her earliest childhood kuleana, or responsibility, involved walking the length of the auwai with her siblings to pull out leaves and debris and fix fallen pohaku, or rocks, along the walls.

“Our reward was our dad would meet us at the top with our boogie boards and we would float down the auwai,” she told the commission on Tuesday.

“I know every turn, big rock, tree and pipe along this system. As an adult, my kuleana to her has increased tenfold.”

In the wake of the 2018 flood, hundreds of people from Hana to Lahaina came together to move and stack pohaku by hand. After eight work days, they got the water flowing again, “but the reason we’re here today is Waihee River’s a very big, strong powerful river, and we need big pohaku to be stacked, and that is the whole reason behind this permit is to really set something up that will last for years to come,” said Pua’a-Freitas, who since the flood has had to shift to growing dryland kalo, which is “a whole other ballgame.”

“I want to point out that the water used off this auwai, all of it returns to the river, so as we and my neighbors use the water, it all makes its way back to the river,” Pua’a-Freitas added.

Kely Rodrigues said his uncle Mike Rodrigues died waiting for the water to return.

“While he was here, he constantly called and cried about his water not being there and how much he missed it,” Kely Rodrigues said during Tuesday’s commission meeting. “He was a water guy through and through.”

He said he hoped to continue his uncle’s legacy and supported the work on the auwai “so that we can put our footprints into the loi and give back to what gave him so much joy and so much happiness while he was here on Earth.”

Pellegrino said Wednesday that the process of getting the permit — which is required because they’re bringing machinery into the river — took almost two years. The hui had to wait for the stream to stabilize so they could plan out the repairs, undergo review by multiple agencies and consult with the community on how they felt about working with Mahi Pono, which is providing the equipment and funding.

Pellegrino reasons that since the farming company is taking water from Waihee to irrigate its Central Maui fields, “there had to be some way for them to give back, and more so to have that kuleana to the Waihee community.” Mahi Pono also has the equipment and the expertise to place stones that residents can’t carry by hand, he said. The plan is to use bigger stones from the river to help prevent against future damage.

He’s hopeful work can start in four to six weeks, pointing out that drought conditions have led to low stream flows that actually make it a good time to do the work. Repairs are expected to take three to seven days.

“For smaller communities that have to do this after storms, there should be a more streamlined process,” Pellegrino said of the efforts to apply for a permit. “We’re grateful, but for things like this, it should be streamlined.”

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

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