When Hawaiian streams swell after a big rain, the force of the water calls its children home. Freshwater snails (hihiwai), shrimp (‘ōpae), and fish (‘o‘opu) begin life high up in the mountain streams. They spend their planktonic stage in the ocean, and then migrate back to their natal pools. To return home, these remarkable creatures must climb 1,000-foot tall waterfalls. They’ve evolved to do just that. But there’s a hitch.

Very few streams in Hawai‘i run freely from mountain to sea. Starting in the mid-1800s, sugar planters built ditches, tunnels and siphons to divert stream water to their thirsty cane fields. Below the diversions, rivers dried up. Those who had relied on that water—stream animals and Hawaiian kalo farmers—learned to do with less, or disappeared. For the last 150 years, the sugar industry has monopolized Hawai‘i’s fresh water resources. Now, with the pending closure of the last sugar plantation, water uses are being re-examined. Kalo farmers are reclaiming their rights. It’s an unprecedented time in Hawai‘i Nei.

Hōkūao Pellegrino lives on two acres beside Waikapū Stream on Maui. He was born and raised in his parent’s house next door. His family’s connection to this land reaches back many generations. His great, great, great, great grandfather Na‘ili‘ili farmed kalo in neighboring ‘Īao Valley and served as one of two konohiki responsible for managing the area’s natural resources.

Pellegrino grew up knowing he was Hawaiian, but not necessarily understanding what that meant to him. In his freshman year of college, his Palauan roommate asked Pellegrino why he couldn’t speak Hawaiian. He decided to learn. That summer he took language classes. He ripped up his parents’ backyard and planted canoe crops—the plants his Polynesian ancestors carried with them when they discovered these islands.

He wanted to restore the old kalo lo‘i (taro patches) above his house, but that proved a steep challenge. The rock retaining walls were still there, buried beneath dense hau thickets, but the water was missing. Many years before, Wailuku Sugar Company installed diversions that had reduced Waikapū stream to a trickle. It remained a fraction of its true self; no ‘ōpae or ‘o‘opu darted in its shallows. “You could not hear the stream at all,” says Pellegrino, “even when sitting by it.”

As it turns out, farming kalo has often meant fighting for water. In 2004, Pellegrino joined farmers from neighboring valleys in an Earthjustice suit against the state Commission on Water Resource Management. They asked the commission to do its job: determine healthy instream flow standards and restore Waikapū, Wailuku Wai‘ehu, and Waihe‘e, the streams known as Nā Wai ‘Ehā, or the Four Great Waters.


According to Hawaiian cosmology, Hāloa, the kalo plant, is the elder brother of the Hawaiian people. The god Kāne brings rain and replenishes streams and springs. Thus, caring for these natural resources is not just a practicality, but an act of devotion. For centuries, Hawaiian farmers cultivated kalo in rain-drenched valleys. These expert agriculturalists developed 300-plus varieties of their staple starch and built ‘auwai (channels) to run cool, fresh stream water through their lo‘i. Water saturated the terraced fields, then returned to the stream and ultimately to the ocean. Along the way it fed fishponds and estuaries.

This highly productive system gave way to external pressures imposed by Western colonialism. Foreign disease and the sandalwood trade in particular removed farmers from their lo‘i.

In 1848, the Great Māhele introduced the concept of land ownership. The children of Hawai‘i’s first missionaries acquired parcels and began growing commodity crops like sugar in sunny, leeward areas. These new fields needed water and lots of it. In 1876, King Kalākaua issued a license to Haiku Sugar Company (the precursor to Alexander & Baldwin), allowing its owners to draw water from East Maui streams. The permission came with a caveat: existing rights or present tenants … along said streams shall in no wise be lessened or affected injuriously.


At first, the sugar ditches didn’t seem much different than traditional ‘auwai: earthen channels directing stream water into the fields. But, significantly, water captured by the plantations wasn’t returned to the streams. As sugarcane fields grew in number and size, so did the ditches. Engineers drilled tunnels through the mountains and built siphons and flumes across steep ravines. Soon they were carrying nearly all of the water off the mountain to irrigate dry, leeward landscapes. This happened on every island, in Hawai‘i’s most fertile valleys.

As the liquid threads connecting the mountain to the ocean were severed, stream animals grew scarce. Kalo farmers living at the base of some of the planet’s wettest mountains couldn’t scrape together enough water to flood their lo‘i. They petitioned an increasingly foreign government for help.

“Do not allow any water rights of the Crown Lands of Honomanu, Keanae, and Wailua to be lost to the millionaire Claus Spreckels,” wrote 13 East Maui kalo farmers in 1881. They implored commissioners to reject a water lease requested by Spreckels, a California sugar baron. “We already know what the millionaire has done with the water on other lands.” In 1902, Nahiku homesteaders won a small victory. A water lease awarded to Henry Baldwin stipulated that he was not to interfere “with the vested interests in the water of landowners in Keanae or Wailuanui.”

But the leases kept multiplying, and fighting them required resources that farmers didn’t have. Ironically, it was a squabble between rival sugar growers that shifted the balance of power from the plantations back to the people. In 1959, the year Hawai‘i became a state, two Kaua‘i sugar companies went to court over the water in Hanapepe River. The McBryde vs. Robinson case landed in the Hawai‘i State Supreme Court. Chief Justice William Richardson, a Native Hawaiian, ruled that neither company owned the water. It belonged to the state.

Drawing from language in the Great Māhele, Richardson determined that water wasn’t a commodity, but a public trust. By the time he issued that judgment, it was 1973. Hawaiian activists, inspired by the Civil Rights movement, had launched a cultural renaissance. The University of Hawai‘i had just established the state’s first law school (named for Richardson) and new lawyers were eager to defend their homeland. In this fertile/volatile environment, the kalo farmers of windward O‘ahu led a charge to reclaim their water.

Windward O‘ahu is bordered by the lush, green Ko‘olau Mountains that serve as the island’s most efficient water factory. In 1912, O‘ahu Sugar and its subsidiary, Waiahole Irrigation Company, drilled a tunnel through the mountains to collect water from the windward streams and deliver it to cane fields on the leeward side. Over the years, developers became increasingly dependent on this water, absorbing more and more until checked by two major suits.

First, in 1976, Charlie and Paul Reppun sued the Honolulu Board of Water Supply for draining Waihe‘e Stream. Seeking to increase the water available for its leeward clients, the Board had deprived downstream users. Waihe‘e Stream’s flow dropped from 4 million gallons a day to 2.3 million or less. As a result, the water in the Reppun brothers’ lo‘i turned stagnant and warm. Their kalo rotted.

The Reppuns qualified for pro-bono legal aid, while their neighbors who owned land didn’t. “That’s why Hawai‘i water law is decided by so few cases,” says Paul Reppun. “How can anyone afford it?” The Supreme Court sided with the Reppuns, though the case bounced between the courts and the Water Commission for over 20 years.


The closure of O‘ahu Sugar in 1993 initiated the next big case. The Reppuns and several other windward residents protested Waiahole Irrigation Company’s continued claim on the water. With sugar gone, what did it need the water for? “The name of the game in Central O‘ahu was not agriculture,” say Reppun. “It’s always been development. They were playing a holding game to keep their tax rate.”

The resulting Wai‘āhole Ditch Contested Case pitted a handful of community groups and kalo farmers against the state’s most powerful players: the Robinson Estate, Campbell Estate, Dole, Kamehameha Schools, the City of Honolulu, the Department of Agriculture—and even the U.S. Navy. “Everybody wanted that water,” says Reppun.

Despite the considerable odds, the high court favored the windward farmers. The landmark decision became a national example for how to apply public trust doctrine. “It was significant because for the first time we could argue for the environment,” says Reppun. “We brought in stream and estuary experts. One of our arguments was: it doesn’t matter if no one grows taro, stream water needs to go into the ocean.”

Historically, Kāne‘ohe Bay—the depository of the windward streams—was one of the most productive estuaries in the Pacific. It’s a critical nursery for juvenile fish such as moi, awa, pāpio and mullet. Experts convinced the judges that de-watering the streams not only hurts kalo farmers, but also aquifer recharge, the riparian ecosystem, and near-shore marine life. Sure enough, after stream flow was partially restored in 1995, aquatic life rebounded. “We thought it would take years for the ecosystem to recover,” says Reppun. “In one year we started seeing fish! It was amazing.”

Isaac Moriwake was a young law clerk during the Wai‘āhole case. Now a battle-tested attorney with Earthjustice, he represents Hōkūao Pellegrino and the Nā Wai ‘Eha plaintiffs. They’ve won significant rulings. In 2014, the Water Commission required Wailuku Water Company to restore a percentage of water to each of the Nā Wai ‘Eha streams. Farmers and Central Maui residents were ecstatic to see their waterways once again bubbling with life. But it didn’t come without a fight, and, after 12 years, it’s not over yet.

“It’s the toughest work I’ve ever done,” says Moriwake. “These cases go on for years. They’re super intense. But the rewards are also profound. These rivers are flowing for the first time in 150 years. You can see the water, swim in it. It’s not abstract.”

Moriwake has seen some egregious behavior during his tenure: several plantations have been caught dumping water that they claimed to need, rather than release it back to the streams. Collusion between the plantations and government regulatory agencies is rife and unapologetic. For example, Alexander & Baldwin executive Meredith Ching sat on the Water Commission. “Just having her there was a stain on the Board,” says Moriwake.

One of a few legally ambiguous issues Moriwake has had to deal with: sugar-plantations-turned-water-companies. When Wailuku Sugar shut down in the 1980s, it re-emerged as Wailuku Water Company. It uses the old plantation ditches to deliver surface water to several customers, including Maui County. In effect, Wailuku Water—which is not regulated as a public utility— is selling Maui County its own water. The situation with East Maui Irrigation is similar. A subsidiary of Alexander & Baldwin, it maintains 74 miles of ditches that supply water to both Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar and Maui County. With HC&S closing down, the fight over that water has begun in earnest. It’s Wai‘āhole all over again.

Sadly, even Supreme Court victories don’t guarantee success. In January 2016, the court invalidated A&B’s holdover permit to use East Maui water. The company immediately lobbied state legislators, who passed a bill in April reinstating the permit for another three years. The question remains for future lawmakers to answer: What role—if any—do these plantation water delivery companies have in Hawai‘i?

“The fight for water is never going to go away,” says Charlene Hoe. “It’s going to get worse.” That’s a weighty statement from a woman who has been wrestling with water issues for 40 years. In 1978, she helped craft Hawai‘i’s most recent constitution, which reaffirms water as a public trust. She and her husband Calvin own Wai‘āhole Poi Factory and were parties to the Wai‘āhole case. “The pressure for development will increase,” she says. “We need to teach our children to fight for the water.”

To that end, the Hoes opened Hakipu‘u Learning Center, a charter school tucked into a corner of the Windward Community College campus. Students grades 4-12 learn Hawaiian values alongside typical school subjects. They get muddy working in their own kalo lo‘i. The Hoes’ sons now run the Poi Factory, where they hand pound poi and serve authentic Hawaiian food to the masses. Calvin Hoe glows when recalling how his granddaughter Maile taught another girl how to pound poi. Regarding the future, he says, “There’s not only reason to feel optimistic, there’s cause for celebration.”

Eighteen years ago, kalo farmers from across Hawai‘i united as Onipa‘a Na Hui Kalo—an informal organization that jumpstarts new farms. “That group was a dream come true for me,” says Hoe. “We needed to work together.” Hui Kalo, as it’s called for short, selects a new site each year. Sponsored by the Queen Liliuokalani Children’s Center, kalo growers fly inter-island to help a new farmer construct a lo‘i from start to finish in a single day. As many as 125 people gather to build and plant.

“It’s like an Amish barn-raising kind of thing,” says Paul Reppun. “Everybody who participates learns how to grow taro, how to work together. The synergy of things is so great, it’s valuable even if they don’t continue growing taro.”

Hui Kalo helped Hōkūao Pellegrino restore his first lo‘i. “When we planted that first huli in the ground,” he says, “that was a commitment, not just to Hāloa, Hawaiians, the culture, and the water—it reaffirmed my commitment to myself.” That single lo‘i turned into many. Pellegrino now runs Noho‘ana Farm, where he grows 55 varieties of kalo. He’s worked with over 10,000 students at his lo‘i, and plans to build a community center where people can get a hands-on history lesson.

Originally, like the Hoes and Reppuns, he just wanted to feed his family. Now he wants to be part of the paradigm shift that’s reconnecting people to the land—the ‘āina that nourishes them. Pellegrino says with a smile, “We have to re-kalo-nize their minds.”

Meanwhile, kalo farmers have to be as tenacious as ‘o‘opu climbing waterfalls. Pellegrino spent the past summer attending the ongoing Nā Wai ‘Ehā hearings. One by one, both farmers and developers rose, pledged to tell the truth, and presented their claims to the water. Water commissioner Lawrence Miike listened without expression. Like many of those testifying, he’s been doing this for decades. This is how the battle is fought: a tug of war enacted in oppressively stuffy rooms, attended by the few souls who can spare the workday hours and navigate the legalese. The kalo farmers have been doing the heavy lifting, but the issue of who controls Hawai‘i’s water affects us all.

When Pellegrino’s turn to speak comes, he holds up a bag of Noho‘ana poi. “This is what we do,” he says. “This is who we are.” In the back, his wife Alana rocks their infant daughter, Keāliapa‘aikeahou. She’s named after the place where Waikapū Stream meets the ocean—when it’s allowed to flow freely. It’s a hopeful name; it’s also a challenge.