Fear drives House push to continue East Maui stream diversion

Legislators side with a corporation over native stream ecosystems, taro farmers and rural communities harmed by more than a decade of stream diversions.

News Report
Bianca Isaki

The Hawai‘i House of Representatives voted Tuesday to pass a highly contested measure that would allow former sugar giant Alexander and Baldwin (A&B) to continue diverting up to 400 million gallons of water per day from East Maui streams, notwithstanding a court order that found it in violation of state laws relating to revocable permits and water licenses.
According to their passionate and emotion-filled speeches, House leadership in Tuesday’s floor session believed Central Maui would turn into a “dustbowl,” schools and hospitals could be “forced to shut down,” and landowner A&B may seek to urbanize its former sugarcane lands if a bill reversing the court order does not pass.

However, scant evidence linked these concerns to the bill’s ultimate effect of allowing A&B to continue dewatering over a hundred streams in East Maui, for the next five years and while legal challenges to A&B’s monopolization of public trust water resources are resolved.

Representative Andria Tupola, who opposed the measure, noted in her own floor speech that a contested case hearings officer had already found there was enough water in East Maui to both provide for A&B’s water-thirsty sugar crops, as well as restore stream flow to the dozen streams that East Maui communities need for their own agricultural and domestic uses. She also questioned whether the county, which pays A&B for some of the water it diverts, would need any such legislation at all, since the county had already successfully applied for a stay of the court ruling with respect to its own demonstrated water needs.

The Senate’s Water, Land, and Agriculture Committee, in its deferral of the Senate version of this bill, determined that A&B failed to demonstrate an actual need for any East Maui water, particularly in light of its own alternative water sources. In deferring the Senate bill, Committee Chair Mike Gabbard urged the company to apply for a stay of the court ruling if it could show its operations and the balance of interests did in fact require the immediate diversion of East Maui streams.

A&B also has the option of following the established procedure for requesting and receiving a new revocable permit to cover its water usage through the end of 2016 and the cultivation of sugar in Central Maui. This would give the company nearly a year to develop plans for future agricultural uses of its land to justify a long-term lease for access to the water.

Proponents of the measure circulated an online petition to farmers and ranchers throughout the state suggesting that all Department of Land and Natural Resources revocable permits are now in question as a result of the court ruling. However, House Water and Land Chair Ryan Yamane, a supporter of the bill, acknowledged that an attorney general confirmed in a letter to him that the measure only affects A&B, and no other revocable permit holder, because A&B is the only entity with a permit in “holdover status.” Furthermore, the bill itself would only speculatively affect the handful of revocable permits relating to water use, and not land or pastoral rights that make up the bulk of revocable permits issued by the state.

By contrast, the hundreds of families and taro farmers in East Maui have already suffered actual harm for decades from insufficient water in the streams. Taro harvests have been lost, families have resorted to paying to have water trucked in for cooking and bathing purposes.

For some representatives, the dramatic display put on by bill proponents backfired. Representative Matt Lopresti, who had originally intended to support the measure “with reservations,” decided on the floor to oppose instead. “I have not seen more fear mongering than with this bill,” he observed, citing A&B’s own prior admissions in a Finance Committee hearing that it would not need water in the two years following the last sugar cane harvest, and that the subsequent transition to diversified agriculture from water-thirsty cane meant that far less water would be needed to keep Central Maui in agriculture. “Greed is not good; hoarding is not good,” he admonished. “There’s enough water for everybody, but even the company this bill was written for is saying we want that water, not need it.”

In a rebuttal, Representative Yamane sought to diminish A&B’s ability to use the 83 million gallons of water a day it can pump from its 15 private wells in Central Maui, to supplement the 55 million gallons per day it can divert from its private East Maui lands without a state revocable permit. He asserted that some of these wells could only provide brackish water unsuitable for diversified agriculture, with some wells providing water containing up to “1,280 milligrams of salt per liter.”

The United States Geological Service’s Groundwater Resources Program has noted that many investigators term “brackish water” as water with a total dissolved solid concentration of between 1,000 and 10,000 milligrams per liter, or mpl, with water of less than 1,000 mpl considered “fresh” (seawater has a concentration of approximately 32,000 mpl). Brackish water irrigation has been researched and implemented for over three decades and is seen as a critical agricultural alternative nationally and internationally, in light of diminishing fresh groundwater sources.

While the majority of the 51 House Representatives voted in favor of the bill, eight voted in opposition, and 12 others expressed reservations about the measure. With Tuesday’s vote, the bill will now go to the Senate for its consideration.