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Maka‘ala Ka‘aumoana is among the dozens of unsung people trying to do right by their communities in the fierce legal battles over public rights to an increasingly vital treasure – water.
The 67-year-old Native Hawaiian from Hanalei has taken on corporate misbehavior in the bottled water industry in Hawai‘i. In fact, her outcry led to a Hawai‘i Supreme Court ruling earlier this year against Kaua‘i Springs, a company in Kōloa that was bottling and selling water drawn from a spring nestled 1,000 feet up the Kāhili Mountain.
"The company’s owner, to this day, is convinced that another water-bottling company busted him," Ka‘aumoana said in an interview as trustees for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs prepared to travel to Kaua‘i to listen to community concerns and hold meetings scheduled for July 16-17.
"I was the one who told the (Kaua`i) planning commission that it had the authority to stop the company from taking our water, bottling it and selling it," Ka‘aumoana said. "It was a use that the county was not experienced in enforcing or regulating. And I called people I knew to come and help."
The help Ka‘aumoana enlisted was mainly from OHA’s legal and public-policy staff. Earthjustice also stepped in to represent two community groups: Mālama Kaua‘i and Hawai‘i’s Thousand Friends.
On one side of what eventually became a landmark decision on water resources was Kaua‘i Springs, which had successfully appealed a planning commission decision in 2006 to deny its request for a land-use permit after being cited by the planning commission for operating without one.
On the other side was the planning commission, which won a significant legal victory in March 2014 when the Hawai‘i Supreme Court ruled against the water-bottling company. The ruling essentially helped ensure that water benefits everyone and not just corporate interests.
“The supreme court has again emphasized the law’s powerful protections of our public water resources against private exploitation,” said Isaac Moriwake, an attorney for Earthjustice. “We were happy to work alongside OHA to provide our perspectives to the court, which the court clearly took to heart.”
As for Ka‘aumoana, she brought the issue to OHA’s attention.
“The role OHA played in this effort was several layers deep,” she said. “First, they held my hands and told me that what I care about was worth caring about. They told me I was doing the right thing. They supported my efforts to get the attention of others to join the fight. They not only provided internal legal expertise, but hired the late Jon Van Dyke, a leading expert on Hawaiian land and water rights law. But the key to this whole thing was feeling like somebody was listening and getting the right people to step in.”