Lahaina’s deadly fire has intensified Maui’s fight over water rights (2023)

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KIHEI, MAUI — Just up the mountain from Lahaina where so many of his friends lost their homes, Ku’uleialoha Palakiko recently walked through his family’s ancestral farm land, which is thick with tall dry grasses.

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“We live in a super dry area. It’s a tinder box here,” said Palakiko, a Native Hawaiian farmer. Nearby, he is irrigating plots of taro that are fed by a small stream diverted from the Kaua’ula Stream flowing from the mountain above, in a system called an 'auwai that is centuries old.

“If we take too much water,” he explained, “the land is depleted. Then we rectify that by putting more water back where it needs to be.”

He and other Native Hawaiians in Maui have spent years fighting for a greater say in how one of their most valued resources — water — is diverted and allocated. Now, in the wake of wind-whipped blazes that ripped through Maui, they say they are being scapegoated by Hawaii government officials and developers, who say water needs to flow more freely for fire protection.

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Maui wildfire updates

Lahaina’s deadly fire has intensified Maui’s fight over water rights (1)Lahaina’s deadly fire has intensified Maui’s fight over water rights (2)

(Video) LAHAina's deadly fire intensified Maui's struggle against water rights

The Hawaii wildfires are the U.S.’s deadliest in more than 100 years. Here’s how the wildfires devastated Lahaina.

Death toll: 115

Maps: See where fires have burned.

Cause: Officials have not announced a cause, though power lines likely caused the first reported fire.

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The day after the fire, the administration of Hawaii Gov. Josh Green (D) asked the state Supreme Court to relax stream flow limits in central Maui to free up more water for fire suppression. A high-ranking state water commission official was reassigned after a prominent developer claimed his request to fill a reservoir in anticipation of fires was delayed. Two residents sued Monday over the reassignment.

Hōkūao Pellegrino, a farmer in Waikapu, said the fire and what he sees as the resulting blame game are being used to “undo all of the work that our communities have fought so hard and advocated so hard to do.” The result, he added, could undermine Native Hawaiian efforts “to ensure that our landscape is no longer that barren, dry, arid, fire prone region that it has become.”

It’s long-simmering issue — with roots in Lahaina’s plantation days — and it has escalated in the aftermath of the deadliest U.S. wildfire in the last century.

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Native Hawaiians say they are trying to go back to a less-flammable landscape that was wiped out by sugar fields and other plantation farming, leaving behind open fields covered with nonnative grasses that serve as fuel for wildfires. Some also say they need water in streams for fire suppression where they live; Palakiko’s extended family lost homes in a 2018 blaze after nearby fire hydrants ran out of water.

Developers say that some regulations have hampered efforts to fill reservoirs with water that could be used to protect Lahaina homes and subdivisions.

Since the fire, Gov. Green has repeatedly highlighted the ongoing water conflict on Maui in remarks to reporters. He has suspended portions of the water code “necessary to respond to the emergency,” and has signaled he may further relax water regulations throughout West Maui.

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(Video) Water access and use conflicts mount with Lahaina fire

Green has acknowledged that using water for cultural purposes is important, but has said the “stalemate” over water policy has left dry areas of the island vulnerable to blazes. His office did not respond to inquiries from The Washington Post.

The governor directly addressed water activists during a live-streamed interview with a Honolulu-based news site, Civil Beat: “Look guys, we just lost lives because we don’t have a water policy or a statewide plan that protects the land from burning.”

He also has said that “people have been fighting against the release of water to fight fires” — a comment that has outraged community members who say it’s a misrepresentation.

“In my eight years on the water commission, I never heard, in a single hearing, that testimony from anyone in the community,” said Kamanamaikalani Beamer, who served two terms on the state’s water commission starting in 2013.

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He added that the Native Hawaiian community around Lahaina “has fought for literally generations to seek justice and balance for the streams and the community and other usages.”

“In an emergency crisis, we’re jumping back to old paradigms that didn’t work for that place, and that brought us to this point.”

Although each U.S. state has its own rules, water is a public trust in Hawaii, a legacy of its days as a sovereign kingdom. The State Commission on Water Resource Management sets standards for the amount of water that must flow through streams; citizens can petition over those.

The legal framework around water rights has “been one of the few tools available to Native Hawaiians to fight against the commercial forces that have been bearing down on the islands for the last 50 years,” said Jonathan Scheuer, a water policy consultant and co-author of the book “Water and Power in West Maui.”

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Lahaina, once a capital of the Hawaiian kingdom, has always been hot. But before Western occupation, it was an abundant agricultural landscape with lush wetlands. An inland pond surrounded Moku’ula, a tiny island that was home to Hawaiian royalty.

Struggles over water management heightened with land privatization in the 19th century. Ancient waterways and irrigation systems established by Hawaiians were diverted for the sugar cane plantations that took over large swaths of land in West Maui. Sugar cane, which gave way to tourism in the 20th century, dried out the landscape. A dried up Moku’ula was filled in, and then later buried beneath a baseball field.

“The plantations’ need for water, to water the fallow fields of the dry plains areas, required massive diversions that immediately upset the balance of the ecosystem,” Palakiko said. “And that we’ve paid the penalty of that.”

The sugar cane planation Pioneer Mill in Lahaina closed in 1999, and private developers, notably West Maui Land, bought up many of those former properties and took over their ditch irrigation systems. Water from streams was diverted into pipes and reservoirs for new subdivisions.

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(Video) Maui kalo farmers defend water deputy accused of withholding water during Lahaina fire

Over the past two decades, locals have battled with that developer and the water companies it owns, increasingly securing more water to bring ancestral farming back to life. Protesters that have assembled at new trenches dug by West Maui Land have been arrested.

The state’s water commission has warned the company it would issue massive fines for over-tapping water systems. Some families who have farmed Kaua’ula Valley for generations have filed and won lawsuits over streams running dry and land title disputes.

The latest controversy began the day after the fires. Glenn Tremble, a West Maui Land executive, wrote to the state water commission complaining that a request to divert water to a company reservoir was delayed for several hours after an agency official told him to first check with a downstream taro farmer, per regulation.

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Tremble told The Post that the company’s subdivisions rely on the reservoir water for fire suppression, and that the company issued a preemptive request ahead of an unpredictable blaze. In the moment, he argued, it was unclear whether helicopters could dump water on hotspots, like they did during a November 2022 fire in an area above Lahaina when the Maui Fire Department tapped company reservoirs.

“Based on experience, we knew that flareups happen, wind strength and direction changes, fires spread quickly, our reservoir levels were low and water from our reservoirs is used by [the Maui Fire Department] for fire control,” Tremble wrote to The Post via email. He added the company needs to have water available to the fire department before firefighters need it. “We also knew that having water for individual homes for irrigation and fire suppression can help to slow or stop fires.”

Critics say filling the developer’s reservoirs with water would not have helped put out the fire in Lahaina. The hydrant system in Lahaina is supplied by the county water system, according to the fire department. And high winds made it too treacherous for helicopters to pull water from reservoirs to drop water on hotspots, as they have done in the past.

In his letter to the commission, Tremble acknowledged “we cannot know whether filling our reservoirs at 1:00 p.m. (as opposed to not at all) would have changed” the outcome. He asked to lift rules on water flow to fill their reservoirs in the area during this emergency period, and “other regulations.”

It became a political controversy after local media published the letter. The water commission official was “redeployed” to allow the agency to “focus on the necessary work to assist the people of Maui recover from the devastation of the wildfires,” the Department of Land and Natural Resources said in a statement. The agency cautioned against suggesting the official “did anything wrong.”

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But the reassignment alarmed West Maui community members. Two filed a lawsuit Monday against the commission office and chair, alleging a violation of the state’s open meetings law. The Hawaii attorney general’s office said it plans to seek a dismissal and called the complaint “wholly without merit.”

Tremble pushed back against claims that the fire is being used as pretext for removing water regulations. “In the short term, we have only asked for some water to maintain some levels in the reservoirs for fire protection and suppression, including irrigation,” he said in his email.

Climate change has amplified the tension over water in Maui, with rising temperatures, droughts and increased severe weather events leaving Maui more vulnerable to wildfires.

The pressure to build new affordable housing in Hawaii, where the cost of living is incredibly high — as well as the ongoing influx of new residents from out of state — has resulted in more development in potentially dangerous fire zones. Green, who promised to increase housing when he assumed office in December, declared a housing emergency last month that suspended several laws to ease building in the state.

(Video) Security video appears to show what triggered deadly Maui fire l GMA

But resources are limited and the demand outstrips the supply on the islands, some longtime locals say. Several family members of Hawaiian community organizer Tiare Lawrence lost their homes in the Lahaina blaze.

“We need the water to be available for fire suppression,” she said. “But we also have to factor in that we’re tapped out in resources in West Maui. Development continues to go and go and go.”

Palakiko agrees: “That’s the most critical question that we’ve been asking recently, is where is the threshold?”

Last year, after impassioned testimony, the state assumed responsibility over regulating water in West Maui, and opened up the process for public input. The local Native Hawaiian community celebrated it as a key victory.

But in recent weeks, after the fire, Gov. Green said that he “foresees” changing or entirely eliminating that designation. “Under emergency rules, I have to do that,” he said during an interview with Civil Beat on Thursday.

Such a move means that West Maui “will turn back into the Wild West,” said Lance Collins, an environmental lawyer who represents several families who have sued over water issues.

“We’re only one week from this disaster. People are still grieving, planning funerals,” Lawrence said. “The government needs to focus on helping the families.”

As Palakiko walked his lands, he looked out to toward the ocean, to the devastated downtown area of Lahaina where his friends lost so much and are now running community relief sites for the displaced.

Immediate needs demand his attention, like putting tarps on the roofs in town to protect against any future rains. But he also keeps watch over the water and how it flows through his ancestral land.

This water is “more than a resource, it’s kuleana,” he said. “A responsibility.”

Brianna Sacks contributed to this report.

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(Video) Hawaii Water Official Allegedly DELAYED Maui Fire Relief Until After IT WAS TOO LATE, DEI Blamed

FAQs

Lahaina’s deadly fire has intensified Maui’s fight over water rights? ›

Now, in the wake of wind-whipped blazes that ripped through Maui, they say they are being scapegoated by Hawaii government officials and developers, who say water needs to flow more freely for fire protection." Elahe Izadi and Zoeann Murphy report for the Washington Post August 23, 2023.

Why was there no water to fight Maui fire? ›

The reason is the long-running battle over west Maui's most precious natural resource: water. That's why, on Tuesday 8 August, when Tereariʻi Chandler-ʻĪao was fleeing the fires in Lahaina, she grabbed a bag of clothes, some food – and something a little unconventional: a box filled with water use permit applications.

What was the cause of the Lahaina fire? ›

Hawaiian Electric Company said that power lines falling in high winds seem to have caused a fire during the early morning of August 8, but power lines in West Maui had been de-energized for more than six hours by the time a second afternoon fire began in the Lahaina area.

Why did Lahaina run out of water? ›

But he said that as the fire began moving down the hillside, turning homes into rubble, many properties were damaged so badly that water was spewing out of their melting pipes, depressurizing the network that also supplies the hydrants. “The water was leaking out of the system,” he said.

What happened in Lahaina? ›

The Lahaina wildfire was one of four blazes that broke out on Maui on Aug. 8, scorching a combined 10.4 square miles. Three of the four fires were still burning as of Aug. 27. Two of the fires had originally been referred to as a single blaze, the Upcountry/Kula fire.

Can you use ocean water to fight a fire? ›

Seawater puts out fire just as well as fresh water, and although seawater is tougher on pump equipment than fresh water, proper maintenance and flushing of the systems would limit their corrosive properties on our pumps,” Capt. Larry Kurtz of the Fire Authority told Honk in an email.

Why is sea water not used to fight fires? ›

Fact 2: Sea water is rich in salts and minerals. It works as regular fire extinguishing-water when used in such situations, however the chemical characteristics of this mineral-rich water are likely to corrode the pipes and pumps used for fire extinguishing, thus reducing their life.

How did Maui learn the secret of fire? ›

By tightening his grip on the hen's neck, she desperately gave away her secret, finally telling Maui how to gather bark from the hau and bark from the sandalwood and rub them together. Maui discovered the secret of fire, but punished the old hen by branding the top of her head until all her feathers were burned away.

Where did Maui steal fire from? ›

Māui brings fire to the world

Mahuika lived in a cave in a burning mountain at the end of the earth. She gave Māui one of her burning fingernails to relight the fires, but Māui extinguished fingernail after fingernail until Mahuika became angry and sent fire to pursue Māui.

How Maui stole the fire? ›

Māui said, "The fires of the world have been extinguished, I have come to ask you for fire." Mahuika listened carefully to Māui, and then she laughed. She pulled a fingernail from one of her burning fingers and gave it to him. "Take this fire as a gift to your people.

Can you drink faucet water in Lahaina? ›

For the latest quarter assessed by the U.S. EPA (January 2021 - March 2021), tap water provided by this water utility was in compliance with federal health-based drinking water standards.

Is it safe to swim in Lahaina? ›

The swimming is poor due to the offshore reef, but they are sunnier, less crowded, and more protected from the wind than most other beaches on Maui.

Can you drink tap water in Maui? ›

Maui. The quality of the water here is administered by EPA standards, so tap water is generally safe to drink. According to federal agencies in the United States, the water quality of Maui meets all the state standards.

What is Lahaina known for? ›

Lahaina was once the capital of the Kingdom of Hawaii and the heart of the whaling industry worldwide. Later, in the 1830's, it served as a fort to defend the town. Today, whaling ships have been replaced by pleasure boats and the fort's huge walls and original cannons can still be visited.

What is the secret beach in Lahaina Maui? ›

Paako Cove is another name for Makena Cove, which is also synonymous with Secret Cove Beach and Maui Secret Beach. This beach of many names is found adjacent to the house at 6925 Makena Rd in the Makena-Wailea region of South Maui.

What is the importance of Lahaina? ›

Lahaina was the royal capital from 1820 to 1845, when it was replaced by Honolulu. During those decades, it grew into a global trading hub with the arrival of whaling ships.

What was the decision on Maui water? ›

In its decision on County of Maui v. Hawaiʻi Wildlife Fund, the court held that the Clean Water Act “require[s] a permit if the addition of the pollutants through groundwater is the functional equivalent of a direct discharge from the point source into navigable waters.”

Where does the water come from to fight forest fires? ›

Most fire stations and air attack facilities contain water sources Cal Fire can pull from when deploying an initial response. In rural areas, firefighters will typically draw water from wells. The means of replenishing water varies by vehicle.

What is causing the water crisis in Hawaii? ›

The Red Hill water crisis is a public health crisis and environmental disaster caused by fuel leaking from the Red Hill Underground Fuel Storage Facility into the freshwater aquifer underneath the island of Oʻahu.

How did the fire in Maui start? ›

It said the fire on the morning of Aug. 8 “appears to have been caused by power lines that fell in high winds.” The Associated Press reported Saturday that bare electrical wire that could spark on contact and leaning poles on Maui were the possible cause.

Videos

1. High court justices challenge state’s claims of insufficient water for Maui firefighting
(Hawaii News Now)
2. Plantation Disaster Capitalism: Native Hawaiians Organize to Stop Land & Water Grabs After Maui Fire
(Democracy Now!)
3. Maui’s historic Lahaina is burning
(KHON2 News)
4. Hawaii wildfires: Flames engulf homes as west Maui residents forced to flee
(Global News)
5. “Do not go to Lahaina town,” amid intensifying brush fires
(KHON2 News)
6. “Do not go to Lahaina town,” amid intensifying brush fires
(KHON2 News)
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