The Road to Hana…and Water History

by Michael J. McGuire

Deborah and I have wanted to go to the beautiful town of Hana since we started vacationing on the island of Maui several years ago.  Guidebooks paint a grim picture of the “Road to Hana” as tortuous, narrow and winding with plenty of opportunities to get into trouble.  Finally, we booked a tour to Hana given by a wonderful guide that we had on another trip last year.  Wayne Smith (named Pono by his native Hawaiian friends) is an amazing source of information about Maui.  Besides his job as a tour guide, he is a writer and a lover of Maui history.  In 2007, he wrote a three-part series about the Maui water supply and its limitations (Smith 2007a, b, c).

It was a beautiful day when we started out on our quest to conquer the Road to Hana.  What I did not know was that I was headed into yet another opportunity to learn something new about water history.  The road leading to Hana is ridiculous.  It is 50 miles long but takes about three hours to traverse.  It has 600 hairpin turns and 54 one-lane bridges. Websites suggest that you not drive the road if you are prone to motion sickness.  Seriously.  We saw two people overcome with motion sickness alongside the road.

The country on both sides of the road is beautiful.  There are vistas of a rugged, volcanic rock coast, an unlimited horizon of the blue Pacific and dozens of deep ravines some with beautiful waterfalls.  Part of the drive is through an honest-to-goodness rain forest.  Wayne who seemed to know every bush and tree pointed out the wonderful plant life along the way.

The waterfalls are located in steep ravines separated by ancient lava flows.  I lost count at about a dozen.  Because it had not rained in a while (24 hours), the waterfall flows were modest, but beautiful.  On the east (or wet) side of Maui, native Hawaiian farmers have used the natural water flows downstream of these ravines to grow taro, which was an important part of the native Hawaiian diet.  In one of its most well-known uses, taro is pounded into poi—an indispensible part of any Hawaiian luau.  It was the discussion of waterfalls that led to his description of a unique water system constructed on Maui beginning in 1876.

The climate in Maui is a story about two volcanoes:  Haleakala and Kahalawai.  They both have wet sides and there is a fertile valley between the two volcanoes that receives so little rainfall that it would be considered a desert anywhere else.  After Captain Cook’s visit to the islands in 1778, there was an influx of missionaries, and also businessmen who wanted to make their fortunes exploiting the natural resources of this paradise.  The most valuable resource in Hawaii was and is its water.

Henry P. Baldwin was one of those businessmen.  Born in Maui, Baldwin suffered several business setbacks until he decided to partner with Samuel T. Alexander on a sugar cane venture.  The island of Maui was perfect for growing sugar cane given the fertile soil and limitless sunshine.  All they needed to secure was a reliable water supply.

Baldwin observed that the beautiful waterfalls that we saw on the Road to Hana were the sources of his future riches.  All he had to do was move the water from the wet side of Maui to the dry lands in the shadow of the volcano.  In 1876, he was able to get King Kalakaua to agree to let him build a “ditch” on the slopes of Haleakala to capture the flow of fresh water and bring it to the fertile valley between the two volcanoes so that he could grow sugar cane.  Growing sugar cane and processing it into raw sugar for export was immensely profitable in the late 1800s.  But, there was a catch.  The company of Alexander and Baldwin had to complete the first ditch and have it operational within two years or forfeit all of their investment and turn the ditch over to the King.  Baldwin was not an engineer, but he hired a survey team and laid out a system of tunnels and open ditches that covered 17 miles.  The system was operational with only two days to spare of the time allotted.  From the original Hamakua Ditch, a system of ditches was laid out around the slopes of Haleakala like cascading necklaces.

Baldwin and Alexander’s positive experience with moving water over difficult terrain spawned emulators.  Other entrepreneurs on other Hawaiian islands imitated the ditch system of Alexander and Baldwin and brought thousands of acres of otherwise non-arable land into cultivation.  Michael M. O’Shaughnessy who was in charge of constructing the Koolau Ditch on Maui in 1904-5 went on to build the Hetch Hetchy water system that serves San Francisco.  [The day after I posted this story, @SFwater announced on Twitter that September 12, 2012, was the 100th anniversary of O’Shaughnessy’s birth!] In 2003, the East Maui Irrigation System was designated as an American Society of Civil Engineers National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark.

Alongside the Road to Hana is the Lowrie Ditch, which was built about 1900 with major improvements in 1911-12 when the road and skinny bridges were built.  As we made our way to Hana, we stopped several times so that I could take pictures of the ditch system when it popped above ground and was near the road.  It was the first time that our guide, Wayne, had to accommodate a crazy water guy who wanted to see the details of the ditches.  In a series of photos, it is possible to see the water exiting a tunnel, transiting a series of weirs and entering another tunnel.

As the economics of sugar production changed, the company that held the original water rights used the water to grow, I mean serve, people.  The East Maui Irrigation company now owns and operates the ditch system and provides some of the water supply to the Maui County Department of Water Supply that is the retail water agency on the island. As the popularity of Maui grew as a tourist destination, more and more of this water was used as part of the rapid development of the island—to the dismay and consternation of native Hawaiians and long-time residents.

The folks who really felt like they were getting a raw deal were the taro farmers on the wet side of the volcano.  They have filed a number of lawsuits to reacquire the rights to the natural water flows that are being captured and sent to another part of the island—to water and grow tourists.  Gee.  This sounds familiar.  Farmers in an upland watershed do not want their water exported to another part of the state for uses that they do not support.  I thought that I had left the water wars when we flew out of California.  Instead, we landed in another fight over water in the middle of a poi patch.  And, I got a history lesson as part of the bargain.


Smith, Wayne. “Maui’s Liquid Gold.” Maui September 15, 20 and 27, 2007.

About safedrinkingwaterdotcom

McGuire is an environmental engineer and writer. He has worked in the drinking water community for over 40 yrs
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2 Responses to The Road to Hana…and Water History

  1. scottfin47 says:

    What an incredible story. I had no idea that this happened on Maui. I love Hawaii and it’s islands. It is a wonderful and beautiful place. If I were rich, I would have a home on Kauai. I spent a week there and went to the Hawaiian grand canyon (the name escapes me at the moment). It was wondrous, and I have never seen a sunset such as the kind they have there. Thanks for enlightening me on the water system.

  2. Scott–Thanks for your comment. Hawaii is truly a magical place.

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