Left high and dry in Koloa

Caleb Loehrer / The Garden Island

Leftover five gallon bottles of water crowd the floors of the Kauai Springs office in Koloa.

Caleb Loehrer / The Garden Island

Jim Satterfield sits among what is left of Kauai Springs, a week after the business was forced to shut down.

KOLOA — Jim and Denise Satterfield can only watch as hundreds-of-thousands of gallons of drinking water flow down the hillside past their once-thriving water bottling business.

Kauai Springs, after a lengthy legal battle, recently shut down operations.

The Satterfields have been involved in a dispute with the Kauai County Planning Department over land-use permits to bottle water on a plot of land they have leased in Koloa for over a decade. Their battle with the planning commission began two years after the business was founded in 2004 and rose from county government offices to the highest court in the state.

Kauai Springs bottled its water by tapping an otherwise defunct gravity-fed private water system that once supplied the Koloa Sugar Plantation with 300,000 gallons of potable water a day.

Sometime near the end of the 19th century, laborers tunneled into the rock face of Kahili Mountain over a thousand feet above sea level and ran an eight-inch steel pipe down the hill to Koloa, providing the plantation with drinking and irrigation water for a hundred years until it finally went out of business in the mid-1990s.

When Jim Satterfield came to Kauai and learned about the water source in the early 2000s, he saw more than an interesting historical relic.

He saw opportunity.

“This got approved in 2004, and we were off and running,” Satterfield said in an interview earlier this month.

He pointed to the point in the pipe where he tapped into the water supply.

“This is what’s called a renewable natural resource,” he said. “The more you take out of it, the more it gives.”

Satterfield relocated to the island from Alaska, where he had successfully started a similar venture that provided the inspiration for Kauai Springs. After the county planning commission signed off on his proposal, the Satterfields got to work, steadily growing their family-owned and operated business.

They weren’t making much money, but the business employed their sons and paid the bills. Trouble with the planning department started just two years later, however, and the dispute has plagued the Satterfields ever since.

“Our competition filed a complaint cause we had a better product, and we were out selling ‘em,” Jim Satterfield said.

In 2006, Satterfield received a memo saying the planning commission, in response to a complaint from an unidentified party, had prompted an investigation into Kauai Spring’s right to access and distribute the water.

The commission had reversed its decision to issue water and land use permits, and the Satterfields were ordered to cease and desist on the grounds that water bottling manufacturers were not allowed to operate on land zoned for agriculture.

The Satterfields took the matter to court, where a Fifth Circuit judge sided with Kauai Springs. But an appellate court later overturned the ruling and sent the matter back to the planning commission, which subsequently issued another cease and desist order and considered the matter closed.

Undeterred, the Satterfields took the fight to the Hawaii State Supreme Court. The dispute had become so convoluted and legally complex by that point that Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald wrote that the case “requires us to further define the contours of the public trust doctrine with respect to water resources.”

The broadening statutory implications of the case did little to comfort the Satterfields. The Supreme Court sided with the appellate court, and the case was once again placed in the hands of the planning commission.

Meanwhile, operations at Kauai Springs had gone on largely uninterrupted. Business was good, all things considered. Jim Satterfield said at one point he had around a thousand regular customers, with hotels among his list of clientele.

For nearly five years following the state supreme court’s decision, the Satterfields battled the planning commission. Finally, a planning department hearing officer was assigned to the case, and following an investigation, recommended the commission grant the Satterfields their permits and allow Kauai Springs to operate.

Shortly thereafter, June 26, the commission overruled the hearing officer’s recommendation, in a unanimous 6-0 vote. The permits were denied.

“One of our major concerns here is public trust and how this has a potential impact upon present and future generations in the utilization of water and conservation of water, and how this has an impact upon the public trust responsibilities that we, here, have,” said Commission Vice Chair Glenda Nogami Streufert, as recorded in the meeting minutes. “So that was the primary thrust of our deliberations.”

Commissioner Kanoe Ahuna added that, “it was not only just the volume of water, like whether large or small, but the overall public trust of water rights and the public trust doctrine.”

Commissioner Kimo Keawe, later in that meeting, said, “The resources that we have — the land and the water — we need to make sure that the decisions that we make are not for a few; the decisions we make are for the public in general and to protect that trust that has been entrusted to us for future generations.”

“We are charged with the careful stewardship of Kauai lands and we take that very seriously, not just for today,” but also for tomorrow,” Streufert said.

Commissioner Sean Mahoney said at the meeting “this has been a very complicated case.”

He said they evaluated the evidence and went through a thorough process and the underlying factor behind their decision was the public trust.

“I think each and everyone of of us had a very difficult time in making this decision,” he said.

In July 2018, the planning director and county attorney were called to brief the county council on why the hearing officer’s recommendation was not followed.

According to the minutes of that meeting, then-Council Chair Mel Rapozo said he was still “confused as to why the planning commission would disregard the recommendation of the planning department and the advising deputy county attorney.”

He pointed out that the commission voted against the recommendation the day after receiving the hearing officer’s lengthy report.

“The commission either worked really fast, or it had already decided what the vote would be,” Rapozo said.

Regardless of what prompted the commission’s decision, the result was the same — Kauai Springs was once again ordered to shut down, this time the cease and desist order was followed by a $10,000 fine. When it arrived in the mail in April, the Satterfield’s finally decided to call it quits. Almost.

They shut down Kauai Springs and are in the process of dismantling their 15-year-old business, but earlier this month, their lawyers filed an appeal, contesting the fine and asking the planning commission to reconsider the case.

The protracted legal battle may prove to be a financial war of contrition, and the Satterfields are losing.

“We don’t have anything,” Denise Satterfield said earlier this month, while taking smoke break from cleaning out the building that had served as the Kauai Springs office and warehouse until a week before. “We lost our house.”

The Satterfields said they borrowed against their home mortgage to pay attorneys fees. The lawyers lost the case and the Satterfields lost their home. They now live in a studio apartment in Koloa and have no idea how to go about scraping together $10,000 to pay the planning commission’s fine.

“I don’t know how we’re gonna pay it,” Denise Satterfield said.

Her cigarette was interrupted when the phone rang. She went inside to answer and came back a few minutes later.

“Another cancelled account,” she said. “I’ve had 35 today.”



Editor’s note: Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald did not author the Supreme Court opinion in this case. This story incorrectly stated he did. That has been removed.

  1. harryoyama May 19, 2019 2:09 am Reply

    Why can’t the Planning Commission define their decision instead of vague public statement “we need to protect our resources for future benefit”?

    They already approved it and even after their own staff attorney had recommended it be again approved, they went against his decision after someone filed a complaint. Sounds like each commission member got a nice fat “envelop” and decided against this water company.

    At least they could have restricted its use and not cause this business to close.

  2. Citizen Cane May 19, 2019 2:27 am Reply

    Another case showing how difficult it is to do business in this state. And another instance where authorities gave an initial approval at some point in the process, only to reverse course later, You saw it on a much larger scale with the capital outlay for two huge Superferries at a loss of $150m per ship (after a bankruptcy sale) all because the state changed it’s mind after giving the go-ahead. Examples abound. This is just a bad faith style of governance, and failure to uphold one end of a bargain—the peoples’ end.

  3. Jake May 19, 2019 6:20 am Reply

    This is NOT a complex case. This is a clear and simple case of “localism.” Somebody gave competition to stupid, entrenched, and connected people on Kauai, and that never has a happy ending. There’s no free enterprise in Hawaii unless you’re connected to somebody with seven cutsie sounding middle names.

  4. Rev Dr. Malama May 19, 2019 8:21 am Reply


    1. dan LOEFFLER August 13, 2019 6:08 pm Reply

      So now my only recourse to get reasonable priced spring water is to buy Crystal Geiser from Costco that is shipped from California and not in HI approved recyclable bottles! What waste of energy! Not to mention the plastic bottles that get dumped in our landfill. Kauai Springs used reusable 5 gal bottles. Brillant!

  5. manongindashadow0711 May 19, 2019 8:39 am Reply

    Tough break!

    1. Daniel w Loeffler August 13, 2019 6:10 pm Reply

      Foreign companies stealing our water? Could you please elaborate on this? And what about all those Reverse Osmosis Vendors that use out tap water to profit on? Is that not our water as well?

  6. Uncleaina May 19, 2019 10:10 am Reply

    Classic Kauai stuffs. Nobody cared about that water until Satterfield was making money from it. Then our county is so inept that it cannot allow someone to bottle water – which you have to admit is the most basic business you can have. They start going into the metaphysical meaning of “who owns the water ?” rather than “how much water does this business need?” like a normal place would. People start talking about how water is sacred etc – do they worship a water god or wot? Protecting resources is important but it doesn’t mean they can’t be used. This water was just flowing through an irrigation ditch – nobody was worshiping it. Sad that our government goes so hard to stop things like this but then the SAME leaders (cough) have left Coco Palms a mess for 22 years. Does it sound shady to you too? Sounds like someone didn’t get their bribe check.

  7. RG DeSoto May 19, 2019 11:17 am Reply

    Aaah yes, the beauty of doing business on Kauai…facing nonsensical zoning laws and idiotic bureaucrats on the planning commission. And just where is the water going now? Of course, it’s being wasted as it flows into the ocean. That’s a much better outcome…right commissioners? Pathetic.
    RG DeSoto

  8. kill whats good May 19, 2019 1:53 pm Reply

    i had their water delivery and it’s the best water at a good price , i’m really bummed about this, all the other water services are complete garbage and the only other option is to buy plastic bottles?! what a step in the wrong direction for kauai county to snuff out local folks doing something right for the community. they could have worked something out that was mutually satisfactory and didn’t kill their business and take away something great on kauai. can you say ‘double standard’ while the state and county continue to let corporations leech off the so called “public” water .

  9. David May 19, 2019 5:03 pm Reply

    Did you mean war of attrition?

    “The protracted legal battle may prove to be a financial war of contrition, and the Satterfields are losing.”

  10. tooindependent May 19, 2019 6:22 pm Reply

    ‘I don’t know how we are going to pay it”. here’s a simple healthy solution….. tell them that you are going to make payments every moth until paid off.. what you do next is stop smoking and you give the county the $300 to $400 a month you waste on the cancer sticks every month.. if Jim smokes then it’s a no brainer for what he should do. good luck. i don’t feel sorry for the stupidity of the situation you have brought upon yourselves. this is a prime example of how true the business climate of Hawaii sucks. you can never read enough information and will still loose your okoles for trying.

  11. Sheeples May 19, 2019 6:46 pm Reply

    Anyone who thinks menehune water is better than kauai springs is off their rocker. Would you like some filtered tap water or fresh spring water? The smart move would of been to partner up with some b and r locals and then start your bottled water business. Hopefully someone else taps this pipe and keeps the water flowing.

  12. Confused May 19, 2019 10:37 pm Reply

    I’m confused. Isn’t the whole point of having a judge is for them to provide the decision? It’s a huge red flag when they just basically handed things over to one of the parties to decide. That was a waste of our states resources. And it’s disappointing that any person would be that flippant about such an important matter. It’s like there’s no consideration for the whole point of having a system in the first place. I also feel like by this article informing us she was on a smoke break while they talked to her was a cheap shot. Disappointed with this article and with how it all went down.

  13. Kapaaa May 20, 2019 7:21 pm Reply

    This is small in comparison to the similar but grander scale case of Grove Farm selling water from the Public Trust at Waiahi to the Kauai Department of Water!!!
    Other relevant facts that Caleb missed: Alaska shut down the prior illegal operation.
    Kauai Springs water was being bottled and sold before the proper permits were even applied for!

  14. Uncleaina May 25, 2019 9:00 am Reply

    I heard someone say “Kauai is a great place to start a business” and I almost choked on my malasada. The statement should be “Kauai is a great place to start a business if your family is well-connected and has been here generations paying off politicians, playing golf, hanging out with council members, partying with the mayor etc.” But if you’re from “the outside” and you start something successful, prepare to be shot down by jealous and vindictive people. When you combine this attitude with our dependence on tourism and billionaires’ money, you’ll see that our island will never be a sustainable system. If someone can’t bottle water that’s otherwise being WASTED, then I can truly say the leaders are fools.

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