Surface water in Hawaii is a valued resource as well as a potential threat to human lives and property. The surface-water resources of Hawaii are of significant economic, ecologic, cultural, and aesthetic importance. Streams supply more than 50 percent of the irrigation water in Hawaii, and although streams supply only a few percent of the drinking water statewide, surface water is the main source of drinking water in some places. Streams also are a source of hydroelectric power, provide important riparian and instream habitats for many unique native species, support traditional and customary Hawaiian gathering rights and the practice of taro cultivation, and possess valued aesthetic qualities. Streams affect the physical, chemical, and aesthetic quality of receiving waters, such as estuaries, bays, and nearshore waters, which are critical to the tourism-based economy of the islands.
Streams in Hawaii pose a danger because of their flashy nature; a stream's stage, or water level, can rise several feet in less than an hour during periods of intense rainfall. Streams in Hawaii are flashy because rainfall is intense, drainage basins are small, basins and streams are steep, and channel storage is limited. Streamflow generated during periods of heavy rainfall has led to loss of property and human lives in Hawaii.
Most Hawaiian streams originate in the mountainous interiors of the islands and terminate at the coast. Streams are significant sculptors of the Hawaiian landscape because of the erosive power of the water they convey. In geologically young areas, such as much of the southern part of the island of Hawaii, well-defined stream channels have not developed because the permeability of the surface rocks generally is so high that rainfall infiltrates before flowing for significant distances on the surface. In geologically older areas that have received significant rainfall, streams and mass wasting have carved out large valleys.