The Four Great Waters

The ocean makes Maui famous—but our freshwater is a precious resource

Nā Wai ‘Ehā. Waihe‘e, Waiehu, ‘Īao (or Wailuku), and Waikapū. These are the four great waters of Maui, the freshwater life blood of the island.

Courtesy Flickr / Jessie Hey

That life blood was drained during the plantation era, beginning in the 19th century. Water was drained via irrigation ditches from the wet to the dry side of the island as the sugarcane industry grew.

The tide began to turn in the 1960s, as plantation owners pivoted to the tourism industry and began to sell off their land. 

In 1978, the state constitution established that, “For the benefit of present and future generations, the State and its political subdivisions shall conserve and protect Hawai‘i’s natural beauty and all natural resources, including land, water, air, minerals and energy sources, and shall promote the development and utilization of these resources in a manner consistent with their conservation and in furtherance of the self-sufficiency of the State. All public natural resources are held in trust by the State for the benefit of the people.”

In other words: water is a public resource. It doesn’t belong to wealthy landholders. It’s a right, not a commodity.

The battle wasn’t over. It dragged on for decades and found its way to the state Supreme Court.

Finally, a settlement was reached in 2021, when the Hawai‘i Commission on Water Resource Management released a decision stating that a “sufficient supply” of Nā Wai ʻEhā be set aside for traditional applications such as taro farming and instream habitat preservation. (See pie chart.)

In 2021 a state ruling set aside water for traditional practices and habitat preservation. Photo courtesy Hawaiʻi DNLR

“This order works to establish a new paradigm for water resource management and collaboration in Nā Wai ʻEhā,” said water commissioner Dr. Kamanamaikalani Beamer at the time. “We affirmed that kalo cultivation is a traditional and customary right in this region, recognized appurtenant rights to wai, and ensured connectivity of streams to enhance biota and ecosystem services.”

None of this is to suggest that Maui’s four great waters are beyond peril. Persistent drought conditions and human activities present a continuous threat to our most vital resource.

But, thanks to the actions of government agencies and advocacy organizations such as Earth Justice and Maui Tomorrow, Nā Wai ʻEhā can flow again—for all of us.

When Will the ‘Īao Monument Reopen?

The ‘Īao Valley is one of Maui’s most iconic—if underrated—locations, from its flowing stream to its breathtaking needle. It was also the location of the battle where Kamehameha I defeated the Maui army in 1790 and, history tells, ‘Īao’s waters ran red with blood.

Forest & Kim Starr

In the summer of 2022, it was closed for repairs, including a slope stabilization project and improvements to the parking lot.

Initially, the county said the park would reopen in January 2023. That timeline has since been moved to a more vague “through February.”

When the park does reopen, it’s worth noting that walk-ins and non-commercial vehicles are free with a valid Hawai‘i ID. Fees for visitors are as follows: Walk-ins $5 (children three and under free), parking $10.

For updates on the status of ‘Īao’s reopening, check in at

Jacob Shafer