Most of the water that finds its way to the bottom of Waipi`o comes from the Kohala side, down the drainages of Koiawe, Alakahi and Kawainui, beyond the boundary of Hamakua. Along the Hilo-side pali of Waipi`o, the Hi`ilawe and Waima sections of the Valley, there are springs that send water down to the Valley floor, but not many streams spilling over the rim, especially during times of little rain. The kahawai (gulches) Waikoekoe and Waiulili run through the village of Kukuihaele, and Kaluahine goes along the edge of the pali, crossing under the road into the Valley just below the lookout, where the road makes a sharp turn at the bridge over the gulch. Waikoekoe, near the Last Chance Store, seems to run only in heavy rainfalls. Waiulili runs with water released from Lalakea Reservoir, which is supplied from Lalakea Stream, a mile to the west or the reservoir. Kaluahine usually only has water when Ditch flow is diverted into it, such as when repairs down the ditch from there must be made.
Waipi`o’s side valley of Hi`ilawe has three main drainages that contribute water to the floor of Waipi`o. Ipu`u is the first stream (coming from east to west) that actually drops water over the edge into the Valley, since the others mentioned above put their water right into the ocean. Ipu`u has been dry most of the time for the past several years, though springs on the pali down below put water into its streambed.
Hakaloa, Hi`ilawe Falls’ “twin,” is the next in line. These days, it ordinarily has such a small trickle that it is not visible from a distance and looks as if it isn’t running at all. Hakalaoa was for years channeled up above into Lalakea. This latter re-routing occurred late in the sugar plantation time, after flooding and associated landslides in 1989 damaged the Lower Hamakua Ditch tunnel behind Hakalaoa Falls in the head of Hi`ilawe side-valley. For years water poured out of the opening part-way up the pali. Repair of the system involved elimination of the falls dropping into the newly exposed tunnel. Plantation bulldozers cut through a narrow strip of land up top that separated the two streams, so that the water of Hakalaoa pours into Lalakea. It took three years and about three million dollars to repair the tunnel behind the falls, compared with 14 months and $150,000 to complete the whole nine-mile system in 1910.
Lalakea, the stream that flows over the pali to become Hi`ilawe, is to the west of Hakalaoa. Hi`ilawe itself has, more often than not over the past few years, been so low that it hasn’t flowed out of the plunge pool some 200 feet down, going instead down the inside of the pali through cracks in the bottom of that first pool. A major portion of Lalakea, as mentioned above, is diverted upstream into a tunnel system that takes it a mile away to Lalakea reservoir, from which it is sent into fish ponds and to a rancher. The left-over water taken from Lalakea, rather than becoming Hi`ilawe Falls, dumps into Waiulili stream, as described earlier.
The only other water flowing over the rim of Waipi`o on this side is Kakeha. It drains a rather small area of land owned by Parker Ranch and it was, a few weeks ago, barely moist. Kakeha’s water goes into the Waima branch of Waipi`o, the part of the Valley that goes almost straight back from the beach toward Waimea.
When rainfall is heavy, of course, the streambeds fill and rush with runoff. They often are discolored with soil washing away and we notice the stain in the ocean. Shortly after the rain ceases, the streams begin to drop, and if the weather stays dry, most of them will stop flowing again. In the times when the upland forests were intact, changes in stream flow were apparently not so extreme. The forests caught and held the rain and cloud mist, slowly releasing it over time. With the destruction of the forests, the sponge-like qualities of the foliage and ground were lost and the effects of heavy rain became noticeably more destructive. In her book, Sugar Water, Carol Wilcox describes the long-standing concern that the watersheds of Kohala and Hamakua were changing adversely and quotes from a government report prepared in response to a drought in 1902: “Today the land is dry and unable to support life by reason of the lack of water. Old inhabitants of Kohala and Hamakua … corroborate one another in stating that not many years ago there was a very large native population in those sections, and that the streams which are now dry were once considered unfailing.” Ms. Wilcox also quotes J. Waldron, a manager for the Hawaiian Irrigation Company, as worrying in 1924 that the forests of upper Hamakua were vanishing rapidly. He observed that the `ohi`a trees were dying, the ferns were unhealthy, and that the trees below and around Pu`u Alala (the now-forested hill sitting amid cow pastures, toward the Valley from Lakeland) were gone.
Instead of continually flowing streams, we now have streambeds that are mostly dry, but in stormy times become channels for muddy rushing water that carry soil to the sea, adversely impacting life there. These conditions also obviously challenge the survival of the creatures, such as o`opu, that live in the streams. The basic human need for water is not just for drinking, but for the support of all life. Reduplication of wai, the Hawaiian word for fresh water, waiwai, means “wealth.” We all know it when we think about it, but the subsistence culture of ka po`e kahiko, the people of old, had continuously in mind, Ola i ka wai: Life comes from water.
Copyright 2003 Hugh Montgomery, PhD