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Isle drought past, future

During the past 121 years, The Maui News has covered many one-of-a-kind stories. The “miracle landing” of Aloha Airlines Flight 243 on April 28, 1988 leaps to mind, as do the banner headlines generated after a Japanese submarine shelled Kahului on Dec. 15, 1941.

Other stories tend to appear like clockwork, whether it is elections every two years or the yearly price of sashimi in the days leading up to New Year’s Eve. Before the global pandemic, coverage of high school sports, Maui Fairs, Fourth of July parades and Halloween hijinks cycled through as regular as the seasons.

In the year 2000, to honor this newspaper’s 100th birthday, we published a 50-page special edition chronicling highlights from every decade. Former staff writer and copy editor Jill Engledow was hired to research and assemble the stories and photos included in the award-winning publication.

While Engledow poured through the stacks of hard copies of The Maui News that were then stored at Kahului Public Library, she noticed droughts were a reoccurring topic. The laments of plantation managers, water directors, Upcountry farmers and ranchers have graced these pages many times over the years.

This week a Kula fruit grower told us how the land is so parched the grass feels “crackly” when she walks through her orchard. Across the central valley and leeward flanks of the island, thirsty fields are bleached blond. Maui County declared water restrictions for Upcountry residents in July, and Friday brought an advisory warning of conditions ripe for brush fires.

The way Haleakala and the West Maui Mountains dawn clear every morning reminds us of the extended drought in the 2000s. With dry winters and scorching summers, the island suffered for years. We would read about how Hawaii island, Oahu and Kauai were getting pummeled with rain and wonder when it was going to be our turn.

Let’s hope this drought does not last as long as that one. Climate scientists offer no guarantees, except that as the world heats up it is going to see more extremes. Just this past year, America has experienced devastating wildfires in the west, deadly flooding in the east, record cold in the south and rapid melting in the far north.

Have you seen recent photos of Mount Shasta without snow? We live in interesting times.

In the short term, all we can do is conserve every drop of water possible and wait for rain. Conservation and smart infrastructure must be keys to all long-term plans, whether we’re talking housing and resort development or water collection and distribution systems. It is imperative to protect our precious environment, while also assuring there is enough water for generations to come.

Drought has long been part of Maui’s history. It is sure to play a role in its future.

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