Waipao stream restoration: A healthy stream flows year-round, allowing native aquatic creatures to complete their entire wai-to-kai life cycle. Pictured here is Oʻahu’s Heʻeia Stream, which several nonprofits—Papahana Kuaola, Kākoʻo ʻŌiwi, and Paepae o Heʻeia—partnered to restore.
Ola i ka wai a ka ʻōpua.
There is life in the water from the clouds.
—ʻŌlelo Noʻeau #2482
Wai—fresh water—is essential to all life. Our moʻolelo tell us that wai is a kinolau (physical form) of the akua Kāne and Kanaloa, who created new springs and streams. Most ahupuaʻa contain a source of fresh water. Many places throughout the paeʻāina were named to acknowledge their freshwater resources, from Waipiʻo on Hawaiʻi to Waiʻaleʻale on Kauaʻi. In old Hawaiʻi, konohiki acted as resource stewards for ahupuaʻa, and appointed kahuwai (water tenders) to oversee water use. This traditional system of resource management led to minimal disputes over water rights.
The Water Cycle
Wai is undoubtedly valuable, but how does it come to flow in our streams, our loʻi kalo, and out of our faucets at home? The water we use every day in Hawaiʻi is the result of the water cycle, a continuous chain of natural events connected to the weather systems, ocean, and land. A single droplet of water can take 25 years to complete the cycle in its entirety.
The sun’s heat warms the ocean, streams, and rivers, generating water vapor that rises into the atmosphere. When the water vapor reaches the cooler heights of the atmosphere, it becomes tiny water droplets that form into clouds. As the clouds become too heavy for the cooler air to hold, the droplets fall from the sky in the form of rain, snow, sleet, or hail. Some of this moisture becomes part of watersheds.
A watershed is an area of land, like a mountain or valley, that catches, collects, and stores fresh water, and is vital to our water supply. Forested mountains serve as Hawaiʻi’s main watersheds. They act like sponges, with trees and plants capturing the falling rain. Forest floors are covered with a layer of organic material that can hold moisture for hours after it rains. Pure water is imperative to the abundant life in a healthy watershed.
Some of the moisture evaporates and returns to the atmosphere to repeat the cycle; some drains into streams and rivers; and some percolates through the soil. The water then seeps slowly through the porous volcanic rock—similar to the way syrup gradually penetrates shave ice. Some water is held within those openings in and around underground volcanic rock; some water is contained by vertical walls of solid dike rock, which can overflow and fill the freshwater aquifer. Hawaiʻi’s tap water is pumped from wells that access the aquifer, or from behind the protective dikes.
Kānāwai: Water rights in contemporary Hawaiʻi
A hotly contested resource in modern times, wai is often fought over via the legal system. These cases can be complicated by business interests and the demands and conditions associated with western agriculture. In fact, water rights are so significant that they comprise a section of Native Hawaiian Law: A Treatise, a seminal reference which addresses critical legal issues affecting Native Hawaiians. The foundation of current water use laws is public trust principles, meaning that any actions taken must benefit present and future generations. One recent and well-known water rights case saw farmers on Maui fighting for 17 years to return water diverted from Nā Wai ʻEhā—a poetic name for the water sources of Waikapū, Wailuku, Waiehu, and Waiheʻe. Even after the Wailuku Water Company returned the diverted wai, each of the four waterways still had dry sections. For truly healthy streams and rivers, they should all flow continuously from uka to kai.
This legal battle from the recent past brings us to the present day and the crisis at Kapūkaki or Kapūkakī (Red Hill), located in Hālawa, ‘Ewa, Oʻahu. Underground storage tanks, installed by the U.S. Navy during World War II, are leaking jet fuel and contaminating water sources that lie below. As the Hawaiian community continues to protect our ‘āina and its valuable resources, one thing remains clear: wai is sacred, precious, and necessary for life to flourish. Ola i ka wai.
To learn more about Hawaiʻi’s freshwater resources, check out the Board of Water Supply. For the latest updates on Kapūkaki, follow Kanaeokana on Instagram and Facebook.
Kahalewai ahupuaʻa: Marilyn Kahalewai’s famous ahupuaʻa painting portrays the importance of wai. It is essential to the life and well-being of all creatures. In pre-contact Hawaiʻi, konohiki and kahuwai oversaw water use within an ahupuaʻa.
Hānau ka Ua: Ua, the most common form of precipitation in Hawaiʻi, has many different names. Over 200 Hawaiian rain names can be found in “Hānau ka Ua” by KS Kapālama Middle School social studies kumu Collette Akana and daughter Kiele Gonzalez, a KS Editorial Acquisition and Development lead.
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