East Maui Irrigation (EMI)

EMI leases much of the watershed in East Maui, they have been around forever, and control much of the surface water.

In a nutshell: EMI is the water company (for agricultural and rural customers.) EMI leases much of the watershed in East Maui, they have been around forever, and control much of the surface water.
Minuses: EMI places signage at entry points to many public lands to which it may not actually have rights to control beyond its infrastructure. Farmers and environmentalists claim EMI dumps excess water it doesn’t use, and that streams beyond the diversion points are no longer healthy as a result of diverting too much water.
Sound-bite: “How do I know the difference between EMI owned, and State owned lands?”

Flash Floods

Please be aware of unsafe high water or flash-flooding that can occur in North and East Maui streams. This note is found on many articles, if you have not read the flash flood page, taking a minute to do so could save your life.


Portions of many nature hikes in North and East Maui cross or are directly on EMI easements leased from the government:

East Maui Irrigation Co. Ltd., one of the oldest subsidiaries of Alexander and Baldwin, Inc. and has land holdings in the heart of East Maui Watershed. Like all the partners, EMI is concerned about protection of the rainforest.

EMI supplies water from the East Maui Watershed to the County of Maui Department of Water Supply for Upcountry domestic and agricultural consumers and Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company for sugar cane cultivation on 37,000 acres. It began in 1876 when construction started on the Hamakua ditch, built by Hawaiian sugar pioneers Samuel T. Alexander and Henry P. Baldwin. Today, EMI encompasses 74 miles of ditch and tunnels, numerous pipes and flumes, capable of collecting and transporting 450 million gallons per day. EMI also maintains 7 reservoirs that hold up to 274 million gallons. (source: EMI)

EMI owns the ditch system that diverts water from State-owned watershed land in North and East Maui, operating under original water leases issued by the government of the time (prior to Hawai’i statehood.) Since the expiration of the original leases has long passed, various entities of the State of Hawai’i have issued year-to-year revocable permits for EMI to continue operating the ditch system on State land.

Ditch at Twin Falls

Ditch at Twin Falls

History & Politics
There are legal battles over these permits, including between EMI and Native Hawai’ians, Taro growers, farmers and naturalists who have observed that much of this water, water they would like to be restored to the natural stream flow, is still being diverted long after the sugar industry has become a shadow of its former self. Some of these groups argue that the water is being dumped in an effort to retain control and claim rights to the principal source of water on Maui for future development.

There is no argument that significant power that comes with control of the water on our island; people wait years to get hooked up, and obtaining a water meter to your property increases the value of your land by six-figures. Also, the Iao aquifer where the County of Maui gets much of its domestic water, is currently being tapped at a rate faster than recharge – a rate which the State has mandated must be decreased. To meet this requirement and an ever increasing demand for water, Maui county purchases more and more water every year from EMI to supliment the domestic water system – the same water that already belongs to the people of Maui prior to entering the ditch system.

Trespassing or Not?
Regardless of the history lesson, and the politics of water on an island, the truth is that EMI’s “No Trespassing” Signs have historically been ignored (by locals and visitors alike) for many years. In fact, the most common print guidebook for Maui all but instructs visitors to simply ignore the signs and strongly insinuates that there is no real enforcement to fear (which has been true.) There is also some ambiguity as to where EMI has the right to restrict access. Clearly EMI can restrict access to assets they own, such as structures and the ditch system. However, the streams, pools, the water itself, and most of the land, belong to the public, and may not be within EMI’s rights to control. Add to that the complexities of legal easements where public access has gone on trails for long periods of time, and where the line is between your right to access a trail and trespassing is a very grey area.

So, should you just ignore the signs or feel free to proceed where signs are not present? I can’t tell you the answer to that! What I can tell you is that the EMI ditch system predates the modern era of worker and public safety and you could very easily become injured or killed making decisions to cross high viaducts, bridges or accessing any part of the ditch system infrastructure. Tragically, people drown, including fairly recently two young girls who were rafting on inner tubes in the ditch. I can tell you personally, that loss and grief was felt by our entire close-knit North Shore community.

That's a long way down with no railing...

Noooooo! Don’t do this!

Besides the risk to life, most of the system infrastructure is EMI property, and they do not want you on it. I think it is very similar to the railroad system on the mainland – infrastructure that cuts across vast areas of land, that is dangerous, but that can not be completely avoided. How would you feel about following along or crossing railroad tracks on a hike? Would you climb the towers and mess with the equipment? Would it be OK if you followed walking directly on the tracks or across railroad bridges? These are questions that you need to be comfortable with yourself – because there are significant safety risks, and the owner of either of these kinds of infrastructure do not not want any liability from people using it for purposes for which it was not intended.

As far as the state reserve land goes – I’m not a lawyer, and can’t speak for where the specific lines of these laws are drawn. I can say, for all practical purposes, neither the State nor EMI have had any visible enforcement efforts to restrict access to my knowledge.

EMI Wavers
Now, if you’re the kind to not take the chance of unintentionally breaking the letter of trespass law, EMI does actually permit hunters and hikers access, so long as they have signed waiver releases and obtained permission prior.

A MauiGuidebook.com reader offered this great advice:

EMI will allow some to hike across certain sections of the leased land so long as each hiker has a waiver, carrying it with them during the hike. An EMI WAIVER IS ABSOLUTELY REQUIRED. Call in your waiver request to Jackie at 579-9516 well in advance [5 days prior] and MAKE an appointment – at a time that is convenient for her – then go by the office to sign the waiver and get your copy. The Pa’ia office is at 497 Baldwin Avenue.
There are Sierra Club hike leaders who can serve as safety and informed local access guides. Connecting with the Sierra Club may be the best, safest and most respectful way to handle hikes through areas such as this.

Perhaps the single best advice I can offer is this: Be safe. Know your limitations. Understand the risks, and don’t be lulled into a false sense safety by the spectacular beauty of Maui.

  1. The phone number you have listed for Sierra Club Maui is no longer correct. You can always check our website and upcoming events calendar – we tend to lead hikes on EMI land in the summer when it’s driest. Winter time is dangerous and harder because of usually wet conditions. All hikers must get the EMI waiver if they come with us, updated instructions also on our outings webpage: mauisierraclub.org/hikes

  2. Susan says:

    last week i picked up my 2 waiver sheets, one for the sierra club and one for the mauna ala hiking club for their hikes that require emi waivers over the next few months.
    at the emi office in paia i was told that they only give waivers to these two clubs, no one else. altho obviously hunters get theirs too. strictly speaking, anyone without a waiver in any of the emi areas is trespassing. they even said, at the office, that all the tourists who go to the bamboo forest are trespassing!
    jackie at the office has now been replaced by candace. she told me that sierra club does not require you to be a member to get a waiver, but mauna ala club does, unless you are a guest of a member, in which case the member has to call ahead and tell her who the guest is. their number is 579 9516.

  3. Tamehameha says:

    People need to realize that the places you seek to hike are sacred areas. In the olden Hawaiian days the mountains and forest were considered Kapu. The kanaka weren’t walking and ventureing in the mountains, it was off limits. Further more it is a watershed for all of Maui. It’s a place to protect, not a place to adventure.
    The real question lies within yourself… Should I be walking in a sacred area for my personal ambitions? Or should I help protect the sacredness of the area by keeping out.

    • Stephanie says:

      Thank you Tamehameha for your post. I love hiking in Washington State’s wilderness, but I believe honoring what is sacred is more important. I may not understand, but it is enough to know there is a sacred tradition that pre-dates legal history. Would you recommend a trail or hike my husband and I could enjoy which is not Kapu?

    • Well Spoken!Tourist are guest to the land and all to often disrespect the ‘aina for their selfish desire to get that, alleged, perfect facebook post. All so you look amazing to your friends back home. Now imagine an outsider comes to your home, tramples through your back yard, wrecks your family’s land, places them self in danger all to tread across your most sacred space back home! Know your place, be respectful and behave as a guest in others home.

  4. Matt says:

    Hello, I was just wondering if the water flow has been cut off in the EMI because lately the water levels have been very low. I wasn’t sure if this was intentional or if there has just not been enough rain water.

  5. Michelle says:

    I would like a copy of your water lease. Who granted you permission to control the water? I would like to see paperwork as soon as possible. Thank you. Ms Waikiki

  6. Does EMI have a website so that I can obtain a waiver via the internet? Also, do maps exist that locate where these irrigation ditches are?

    • Unfortunately, EMI does not do waivers online and my understanding is that they deny the vast majority of hiking inquiries, unless there is a compelling reason (compelling to them, not you πŸ™‚ Your best bet, if you want a waiver, is to call them when you’re here and tell them you want to hunt. That is virtually the only thing they will give a regular Joe a waiver for, and only in certain areas. Can you see why most hikers just ignore the EMI signs now?

    • Michelle says:

      You’re so right. My husband down for a year now over water rights. I have to ask, where did they get the permission to take the water, where is the lease and who granted them permission? Opunui Water Company came home from the Army and Serving America, to provide clean water to the community and JUDGE RHONDA LOO who sentenced my Kanaka to 20 years in prison owns water stocks with A&B. My husband’s two grandfathers, Opunui and Ehu names are on the 1863 water course agreement. Nahinu Waikiki is heir to 95% water stock on Maui. What Rhonda Loo is doing to my family is a Federal Crime. But you see they all work together a good old boys club. Military, State Church and Government. Living fat and with gluttony and greed, corrupt to the core, controlling the slaves. Jesus is coming and you’re all going to hell. Free my Waikiki Man from America’s violent sick prison system. Ms. Waikiki

  7. Ruven Liebhaber says:


    I have been a (month of February) visitor to Maui for five years. i am always looking for nature hikes and am interested in the ditch road opportunities. How can i obtain a detailed map of the system and possibly narratives of some of the hikes? Is there a group(s) that I can join in with on occassion.

    Mahalo, Ruven Liebhaber

Leave a Comment or Review

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes:

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>