Sunday, April 26, 2015

Water, Water, Everywhere, Nor Any Drop To Drink: Maui's Crazy Fresh Water Shortage

How can Maui have a shortage of fresh water? As I write this, the rain is coming down in thick, glorious sheets, cooling the air after a muggy, voggy day. It doesn’t make sense that there’s not enough water for the island, that people wait for years, even decades to get a water meter for their house, and that Hawaiian farmers do not have enough water to grow taro, when parts of Maui are considered among the wettest places in the world.

This quote from Samuel Coleridge, The Rhyme of The Ancient Mariner
is perfect to describe Maui's crazy fresh water shortage.

In a way, it’s like the problem of world hunger – there’s enough food to feed the world’s population, but the problem is distribution. 

The root of the problem
For decades, Maui streams and rivers have been diverted for use to irrigate sugar cane and pineapple fields. As Maui’s agriculture has been declining, the water could be returned back to the streams. Legal cases have been won, with judgments to restore stream flow, but the laws are not being fully implemented. Here's a transcription of a Maui talk on Na Wai Eha by EarthJustice

What factors are involved?
Many people suspect greed is at work here. Companies like HC&S are believed to have plans to develop the agricultural lands into housing and want to retain the water rights for development. (On the other islands where sugar cane is no longer commercial grown, those ag lands have become houses.) Companies which hold water rights are also trying to sell water to the county for a surface water treatment plant. (Sounds ironic, doesn’t it – needing water to treat water, like a plot for a dystopian scifi novel?) Please check out this FAQ on myths and facts regarding Na Wai Eha.

This Facebook post was public, which is why I have not blacked out the names.
Read the original post on Maui Now.

One major court case centers around Na Wai Eha, the four major streams traditionally known as the Four Great Waters, an important Hawaiian cultural site. Although proponents won a victory to restore stream flow, only water from two of the streams has been restored. Still yet, it’s a step in the right direction.

 A recent lawsuit concerns stream waters in East Maui, after residents discovered that the State of Hawaii approved water permits allowing streams to be diverted for another 30 years by local companies. Taro farmers in East Maui are in an uproar.

East Maui Water Case Update, 4-20-15: In response to a complaint filed in 2001, Judge Hifo of the First Circuit Court...
Posted by Mahealani Wendt on Monday, April 20, 2015
Water is a public trust resource in Hawaii and many local residents allege that the state and the county have been misusing their powers and are doing anything but protecting this resource.

Other examples of freshwater pollution include:
Pumping waste water into Lahaina injection wells, the drinking water that goes into people’s homes in West Maui.
Pesticide and chemical contamination of Hamakuapoko Wells, which the County wants to use as a back up water source. Some fear the County is already using this contaminated drinking water for some parts of Maui.
Polluted storm water and construction run off also end up in the ocean. 

On the positive side, more people are become educated and active on these issues, questioning the government and private companies, and advocating for greater protection of public water. Maybe social media is helpful? Here's a friend's Facebook post about possible illegal dumping from a West Maui construction site.

(By the way, while I have your attention, three friends are running interesting projects:

Here's a shortcut to the archives for the A to Z Challenge and other blog posts.

The theme of this year’s A to Z Challenge is Living on Maui: A Beginner’s Survival Guide. While I can’t include everything in only 26 short blog posts, this is my foolish attempt.

If you are participating in the Ato Z Challenge, please use either Disqus or Facebook to comment below. Please include your link so that I can visit you back, but it might be as late as May!


  1. More and more sources are saying water will be the next resource people fight wars over. Sadly it seems plausible, and I am not looking forward to it...

    @TarkabarkaHolgy from
    Multicolored Diary - Epics from A to Z
    MopDog - 26 Ways to Die in Medieval Hungary

  2. I've heard that as well. In some places, I think it is already happening. I remember hearing about springs that are fought over - because companies want to bottle the water and the facility causes pollution or depletes from the fresh water supply. In Florida, Zephyrhills was a big controversy:

  3. Thanks Courtney - just FB'd your post. It's beyond dreadful. Using fresh water and putting into plastic bottles to sell, adding to the pollution. .. I'll check out the links at a later stage.

  4. The greed and short-sightedness of human kind is astounding...

  5. I'm impressed by your wealth of knowledge! So sad to hear of the struggles and greed going on. :(

    Elizabeth Mueller

    AtoZ 2015

    My Little Pony

  6. Water is such a contentious issue these days, but it should not be in Maui, especially since you guys have so much rain. Many places have so many issues with water, and seems to be a thing that can trigger out and out fights. There is still a grand debate about who owns the water in one local lake. Is it the people who have the lake in their city, or the place where the water flows to. The debate seems ridiculous to me, and I wonder why they cannot share it equally. Of course that is tree hugging me to think this.

  7. What? I would have never thought that there can be shortage of Water in Maui. This post is a revelation!

  8. Yes, it's totally absurd. There's plenty of rain, but not to the places that need it. There's not enough stream water to support native taro farming and even though there are agreements to share the water with the agricultural companies, the county has never actively used their share of the water. People do water catchment in areas that get enough rain, but if you live on the dry side of the island, you're out of luck if you're not connected to county water.

  9. We do have a lot of rain, but we also have a wet and dry side of the island, so the wet side, where I live, would love to send rain to the dry side... but we don't have a way to do that. The other thing I just read today is that the water that serves South Maui, where a lot of condos and resorts are located, comes from the West Maui aquifer, and it's being overused, causing salination. I'll have to do more research on that. I'm not surprised about hearing fights over your local lake since CA has so much drought.

  10. To some extent, I wonder if greed and short-sightedness are hard wired into us. Back in caveman days, we needed to grab and eat whatever we could because there might not be more. The future is too distant. We somehow need to evolve to see things from a higher perspective.

  11. Hi Susan, yes it's nuts. Like so many other water controversies elsewhere. The one I remember from school was in Russia, two major rivers were diverted to irrigate I think cotton, and of course they dried up, and the cotton was never a success and now it's a big wasteland.

  12. Greed (or whatever one wants to call it) is not endemic to Hawaii... I wonder if on an individual level, greed shows up as wanting and grasping and survival, and on a larger or corporate level, greed becomes bigger than the sum of the individual parts. I think we all have inner greed, and it may serve us in some way, to push us further, but collectively, it may be anti-survival for the species. There's a concept called The Tragedy of The Commons in environmental studies. The commons are a place where everyone in town can take their animals to graze, but everyone does this and no one takes care of the commons and it dies, causing downfall for the entire community. That's kind of how I see the water issue.

  13. Wow. I'm amazed that can happen in America today. I didn't think of a tropical island as having a drought. That's crazy!

  14. Yes, it's bizarre. Every now and then,the water department asks upcountry residents to minimize water usage.


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