Kauaʻi Stream Restoration Complicated by Diversion Dependent End Users

Aug 29, 2018

The streams of Southeast Kaua'i were diverted as part of sugarcane plantation irrigation systems starting in the late 1880s.
Credit Ku'uwehi Hiraishi

As Kauaʻi residents continue to deal with the impacts of heavy rain and flooding, we want to turn your attention to another water issue on the Garden Isle....one that residents have been dealing with for more than a century. HPR Reporter Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi has more.

For nearly 150 years, fresh water on Kauai has been diverted from streams—first to cultivate sugar cane---and more recently to power hydroelectric plants. Now the state Water Commission is considering reducing the amount of water diverted from two streams flowing from Waiʻaleʻale. 

Wai'ale'ale is considered one of the wettest places on Earth. Water flowing from this summit feed into streams that have been diverted - first sugarcane and more recently for hydropower generation.
Credit Brian Walter / Flickr

Koloa farmer and rancher Arryl Kaneshiro says the decision will be quite the balancing act.

“On one hand, you have the desire to keep more water in the stream," says Kaneshiro, "And on the other you have a plethora of other uses including hydros, which generate cleaner and less expensive electric for the island; a surface water treatment facility which provides potable drinking water to residents; and agriculture."

Kaneshiro is a county councilman and employee of Grove Farms. Heʻs also a fourth-generation farmer and is concerned about the decision's potential impact on the island's food security.

“We hear a lot about people wanting to protect and preserve agriculture," says Kaneshiro, "The state has a goal to double food production by 2020. You hear the terms ‘grow what we eat, buy local, eat local, support your local farms.”

Farmers Nap Seechachet owns and operates O.K. King Farms on Kaua'i with irrigation water diverted from Wai'ale'ale and Waikoko Streams. Reducing the amount of diverted water could have an impact on his operation.
Credit Grove Farms

Lowering the amount of diverted water could have an impact on end users like Kaneshiro who have become accustomed to the water. This includes the islandʻs utility – Kauaʻi Island Utility Cooperative and the countyʻs municipal water system, which provides drinking water to an estimated 15,000 island residents.

One of the streams that feed the Waiahi Hydroelectric Power Plant on Kaua'i.
Credit Kaua'i Island Utility Cooperative

Koloa resident Bridget Hammerquist wants to fully restore the natural flow of Waiʻaleʻale and Waikoko Streams.

“It would be wonderful and it would probably not hurt the power production at all,” says Hammerquist, “Iʻd rather see loʻi back in cultivation. Iʻd rather see people with jobs. Iʻd rather see sustainble food grown.”

The Commission has been weighing competing uses of limited stream water statewide for three decades now. Earthjustice Attorney Leinaʻala Lee says the Commission’s responsibility is to protect water as a public trust.

“So really in this proceeding, the primary question is what is the minimum amount of water that needs to be kept in the stream for public trust uses,” says Ley.

This includes water to support fish and wildlife, recreation, native Hawaiian gathering rights, and more. Hydropower generation within the stream would also be considered a public trust purpose. But in this case, the water diverted by KIUC does not return to the stream.

The Commission has yet to make a decision