Official Who Ignored Request for Water During Maui Inferno: 'Water Requires Conversations Around Equity'

M. Kaleo Manuel, Deputy Director of the Hawaii Commission on Water Resource Management. CREDIT: Screenshot

During the inferno that devastated part of the island of Maui, wiping entire towns off the map and possibly killing more than a thousand people (once a full assessment can be made), people on Maui begged state officials to allow West Maui stream water to be diverted to fill up reservoirs for firefighting. That request went to M. Kaleo Manuel, Deputy Director of Hawaii's Commission on Water Resource Management, and he delayed approval of that water for five hours - five hours in which the once-contained fire exploded. By the time the approval was received, workers were unable to reach the siphon release so that the water could be diverted. Now we're learning that Manuel, an Obama Foundation Leader for the Asia Pacific Region, is a climate change activist and DEI devotee who's said, "Like, we can share [water], but it requires true conversations about equity."


Glenn Tremble with the West Maui Land Company gave the chronology in a letter sent to Manuel, and obtained by the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.

According to the letter, although the initial fire was contained at 9 a.m., there were reports of fallen power lines, fierce winds, outages and low reservoir levels, prompting the company to reach out to the commission to request approval to divert more water from streams so it could store as much water as possible for fire control.

Instead of approving the request, CWRM asked the company whether the Maui Fire Department had requested permission to dip into the reservoirs and directed it to first inquire with the downstream user to ensure that his loi and other uses would not be impacted by a temporary reduction of water supply.

Communications were spotty, the letter said, and the company had already tried unsuccessfully to contact the one downstream user.

According to the Star-Advertiser, locals reported that the fire moved so fast and burned so hot that "water was spewing out of melting pipes and depressurizing the lines that also supplied the fire hydrants." Tremble said that once approval was received to divert more water, it wasn't possible to do so because of the fire.

“At around 6:00 p.m., we received CWRM’s approval to divert more water,” Tremble wrote. “By then, we were unable to reach the siphon release to make the adjustments that would have allowed more water to fill our reservoirs.

“We watched the devastation unfold around us without the ability to help. We anxiously awaited the morning knowing that we could have made more water available to MFD if our request had been immediately approved."

Tremble’s letter said it is unknown whether filling the reservoirs at 1 p.m. would have ultimately made a difference.

But “we know that fires spread quickly. We know that we need to act faster during an emergency. We know that the community we serve relies on the water as a defense from spreading fire. We know that we must have water available for MFD before MFD needs it. We know we can do better. We’re all in this together.”


In a video posted to X early Thursday, Manuel shares his beliefs about water, religion, and equity.

Manuel said:

The commission is protect and manage all water resources in the state. One water is ... looking at it from a holistic system perspective, and that's not any different than how Hawaiians traditionally manage water. You know, in essence we treated -- Native Hawaiians treated water as one of the earthly manifestations of a God... and so that reverence for a resource and that reciprocity in relationship was something that was really, really important to our worldview and well-being, right, living in an island and isolated from other civilizations.

So I think where it shifted to today or over time is that we've become used to looking at water as something which we use and not necessarily something that we revere as that thing that gives us life, right. I mean, to me it's a shift in value set, and if we can start to really look at how we as humans, in an island, can reconnect to that traditional value set. So really my motto is always like, let water connect us and not divide us. Like, we can share it, but it requires true conversations about equity.


Yes, water is something we all revere as that thing that gives us life, and it also protects our lives, and the lives of animals and plants, from fire. Did Manuel allow his view of West Maui Land Company as a developer to cloud his approval process? 

Manuel's biography on the CWRM website states (emphasis mine):

Kaleo was born and raised on the Island of Hawai‘i and currently resides in Mānoa, O’ahu. He is currently serving his second term as the Deputy Director for the State of Hawai‘i, Commission on Water Resource Management tasked with administering the State Water Code created in 1987. He is an ‘ōlapa and ho‘opa‘a in Hālau Pua Ali‘i ‘Ilima, completing his traditional ‘ūniki rites with Kumu Hula Victoria Holt-Takamine in 2017. Kaleo also holds a B.A. in Hawaiian Studies, a Master’s Degree in Urban and Regional Planning, and a Graduate Certificate in Historic Preservation, all from the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. Kaleo began his professional planning and public service career at the State of Hawai‘i, Department of Hawaiian Home Lands. Evolving from a land use focus, over the past 10 years, Kaleo has focused on bringing planning and indigenous knowledge to the fields of water advocacy and management in Hawai‘i. Kaleo is one of 200 inaugural Obama Leaders representing the Asia-Pacific region with the Obama Foundation.


Putting to use indigenous knowledge about land use/management and water management is a good thing, and if had been applied to land use/forest management the devastation we're now seeing might have been prevented. But there is nothing about indigenous knowledge of water advocacy and management that should lead one to delay in an emergency.

Of course, Manuel isn't the only failed leader to blame in this. As Bonchie wrote, the emergency management head and the police chief are just as incompetent.

(EDITOR'S NOTE: This piece was edited post-publication for clarity.)


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