(Published by Earth Justice, http://earthjustice.org/features/island-revival-water-returns-to-hawai-i-s-people)

For centuries, Native Hawaiians thrived in harmony with one of the islands’ most precious resources—fresh, cold water flowing from Hawai‘i’s highest peaks to the ocean. They fished in streams and estuaries and used the fresh water to grow taro, a starchy root crop that’s sacred to the Hawaiian people. They believed that water can’t be owned—it’s a public trust resource that belongs to everyone, including future generations.

But their whole world changed with the arrival of Westerners, who began diverting water from the streams to grow cash crops like sugar cane. As the streams dried up, so too did Native Hawaiians’ ability to maintain a traditional, self-sufficient lifestyle.

Since Big Sugar companies first took the water, Native Hawaiians have struggled to hold onto their time-honored traditions. But a series of economic, political and legal events have opened up a window of opportunity for Hawaiian communities to finally reclaim their water rights—and to put some culture back in agriculture.

THE decades-long fight to restore Hawai‘i’s waterways began in the lush Waiāhole Valley of O‘ahu, where a small, tight-knit community of family farms began to speak up for their rights to the islands’ stolen waters.

As a child, Ka‘ua Fraiola spent many of his days playing in the streams on the rural windward side of O‘ahu, including Waiāhole Valley, where he grew up on his family’s farm. He didn’t know it then, but a movement to restore water rights to Hawai‘i’s people was brewing in his backyard.

Fraiola’s neighbors, brothers Charlie and Paul Reppun, didn’t plan on getting involved in political issues either when they first came to Waiāhole Valley in the 1970s. But they knew they would need water to revive the taro patches that once flourished on their land.

The brothers joined up with many others on the island, including the Fraiolas, to advocate for restoring water to its rightful place. Over the next several years, they worked to educate the community about the water diversions that were devastating native stream life and traditional Hawaiian practices, like taro farming.

Members of the Waiāhole community enlisted Earthjustice to represent them during state water commission hearings, which pitted the community against Hawaiʻi’s most powerful private and governmental interests. Fraiola remembers attending many of the hearings as a kid with his mom and their neighbors. “As a kid, you just follow your parents,” says Fraiola. “But after a while, it becomes a part of you.”

The water commission ended up short-changing Native Hawaiians and small farmers, so Earthjustice attorney Paul Achitoff took the case to the state Supreme Court. In 2000, the high court issued a landmark ruling that for the first time required more protection of streamflows and of the public uses that depend on them. The court’s decision reaffirmed that all the waters of the state are held in the public trust, though it would take another appeal to more fully restore streamflows.

Shortly after water began returning to the streams, biologists donned wetsuits to measure the impact on the Waiāhole ecosystem. They were astounded by the revival of native fish species like ‘o‘opu, which were once prevalent in streams throughout the Hawaiian Islands but hadn’t been seen in abundance for years.

The return of water has had ripple effects far beyond the streams. Traditional Hawaiian farming practices are also making a comeback. The Reppuns, for example, can now grow three acres of taro, or kalo, a starchy root crop whose heart-shaped leaves once fanned across the islands. Their 15-acre Waianu Farm also sustains breadfruit and coffee trees, as well as sweet potatoes and cacao. Solar panels and hydroelectric generators help keep the farm off the grid, and everything organic goes back into the soil.

Sustainability is at the heart of Charlie and Paul Reppun’s Waianu Farm. Solar panels generate electricity for the farm.

Charlie holds up a freshly harvested taro root. Taro, or kalo, is an immensely important staplecrop for Native Hawaiians and holds great cultural significance. 

Fresh, clean water from the nearby Waianu Stream is temporarily diverted to the taro fields for irrigation before it flows back to the stream to support aquatic life.

The taro fields at Waianu Farm also provide critical habitat for wildlife, such as these endangered ae‘o or Hawaiian stilts. 

Vibrant mountain apple trees bloom at Waianu Farm. Mountain apple was one of the crops brought to the Hawaiian Islands by Polynesians more than a thousand years ago for food, medicine, and wood.

Waianu Farm produces a diverse bounty of other crops as well. Here, empty cacao pods lie on a field awaiting compost.