Sunday, May 12, 2002

Ed Wendt pulls weeds from the community taro patch near his Wailua, Maui home. Water experts say Maui is an alarming example of what happens in an isolated microcosm as conflicting interests must fight over runoff from rains and dwindling underground reserves.

troubled waters

On this lush island, some see
the early warning signs of a
growing world water crisis

By Mort Rosenblum
Associated Press

HANA, Maui >> On the paradise island of Maui, where some of the world's heaviest rains pelt lush peaks, scientists say big users squander water so much that main wells soon may be contaminated by salt.

"They'll be lucky if they have another five years at this rate," said William Meyer, who recently retired as the U.S. Geological Survey's regional director. "This is a train-wreck scenario."

Maui, water experts say, is an alarming example of what happens in an isolated microcosm -- an island, in this case -- as conflicting interests must fight over runoff from rains and dwindling underground reserves.

Although by itself only a dot in the Pacific, Maui is viewed as a revealing laboratory not only for the rest of Hawaii, but also the wider world beyond.

"Places like this have no Colorado River to fight over," Meyer said. "When they realize they're out of water, it is all of a sudden, and it is too late."

Already, Hawaii farmers who plant taro see streams go dry at a quickening rate because agriculture barons and land developers use their historical rights to divert water. That may be only the beginning.

Taro farmer Ed Wendt of Wailua, above, organized residents to challenge large land owners for water use rights in court.

On volcanic islands, rain that does not run out to sea settles in porous underground pools, forming what geologists call a lens of fresh water above encroaching salt water.

But, hydrologists say, for each foot of fresh water taken from these subsurface aquifers, heavier salt water pushes up 40 feet. Uncontrolled pumping can mean calamity in a hurry.

Hastened by four years of drought, levels have plummeted in Maui's Iao aquifer, from 18 feet above sea level in 1990 to 10 feet in 2001. That left only 400 feet in the fresh-water lens.

Planners say Maui's population of 150,000 could reach 1 million by 2050 as tourism expands, making hard choices inevitable. A hotel or golf course needs a million gallons a day, enough for 10,000 people.

Even now, few people talk about the crisis.

"This is our dirty little secret," said Lucienne de Naie, a Maui conservationist who tracks supply and demand. "Everyone needs water so everyone is afraid to criticize the people who control it."

She said Maui leaders lack even the political will to determine how much water they have. "With a precious resource, when you are in doubt about something, you don't do it," she said.

Experts warn of other impending crises on the islands of Oahu, Kauai and Molokai, where they say aquifers also are emptying faster than rain can recharge them.

The bulk of Maui's water is collected or pumped by Alexander & Baldwin Inc. Its elaborate ditch system carries water from wet areas to dry ones.

The company takes 60 billion gallons a year from streams that cross public land, paying the state of Hawaii only $160,000 annually, officials say.

Water flows through a Maui sugar plantation irrigation ditch near Pukalani.

Elsewhere, U.S. Geological Survey agents add, A&B pumps underground water from its private wells -- millions of gallons daily -- that are not reported to anyone.

Much of the water is used to grow sugar cane, which requires a ton of water for every pound of sugar produced and relies heavily on federal price supports.

"Sugar is only a place marker for future development," said Jonathan Starr, an outspoken member of Maui County's water board, who believes the company refuses to share its water rights for fear of losing them.

"Whoever controls the water has a lock on the economy," he said. "Alexander & Baldwin's vision is that sugar cane will eventually turn into houses."

While at least 700 people have waited 10 years for water meter permits so they can build on their land, A&B has developed luxury property with water it controls, he said.

Starr sold a successful sign business in New York to settle in Maui, building a solar-powered house with a rainwater catchment system.

He was able to block one large real estate development by exposing secret plans between land companies and local officials to tap scarce water, but he fears uphill fights in the future.

Starr and a chorus of others angrily protested recently when Gov. Benjamin Cayetano named an A&B vice president, Meredith Ching, to the State Water Commission.

Some legal experts called this a blatant conflict made worse by the fact that two of the other three appointed commissioners also represent big agriculture and the third is a labor leader.

Ching, who supervises community relations at A&B, refused any comment on her appointment. She also declined to answer questions about company water use.

Linda Howe, media relations director, also would not comment.

"This is more of a perceived conflict than an actual one," said state Sen. Avery Chumbley, D-East Maui, North Kauai, who also heads a land company that sells water. "I believe in my heart and mind she (Ching) is a person of integrity."

Alan Murakami, attorney for the Native Hawaiian Legal Corp., argues that Ching is bound by law to support A&B's best interests or risks lawsuits from stockholders.

Even if she recuses herself on Maui decisions, any water commission action sets a precedent for the rest of the state, he said.

Murakami said Meyer had volunteered to serve on the water commission, but his nomination was blocked by large commercial interests.

In her first commission meeting, Ching challenged what conservationists praised as a landmark decision to restore diverted agricultural water to two spectacular falls on the Big Island.

William Tam, a Honolulu lawyer who wrote the state water code as deputy attorney general assigned to the commission, calls the appointment an "irreconcilable conflict" that puts authorities in "very difficult circumstances."

Tam was dismissed from state service in 1997. No official reason was given, but at the time the attorney general criticized him when a judge granted him a delay in a minor trial because of a personal emergency.

Privately, state legislators say he was fired after he spoke out at community meetings for native and individual water rights.

Hawaii has some of America's most stringent public-trust water laws, but they are poorly understood and essentially ignored, Tam said. He blames this partly on official mismanagement and conflicts of interest.

Unlike in the western mainland United States, where water rights were claimed mostly on a first-come, first-served basis, Hawaii follows the New England practice of sharing available water among all users.

In the landmark Waiahole decision in August 2000, the Hawaii Supreme Court upheld the water commission's power to protect streams, domestic use and traditional rights. But even that has not been sufficient, Tam said.

"Think of 19th-century colonialism," he said, explaining that many relics of old ways now define modern practices.

Tam fears court tie-ups as more users battle old entrenched companies and other large interests over water supply. He expects disputes to grow fierce when dwindling fresh water is all committed, forcing reallocation.

Occasional public outbursts already crackle with emotion.

In one meeting, small farmers pleaded for more stream water, but Garrett Hew, who heads A&B's Maui water operations, flatly refused. Hew declined to comment for this story.

Linnel Nishioka, deputy director of the Water Commission, said in Honolulu that Ching's appointment was no problem since she would take no part in matters related to Maui or flow standards for Hawaii's streams.

She said state authorities keep watch on the water supply and are confident they can meet future challenges, but she added that their resources are severely limited.

"We're managing a long-term problem in a short-term world," she said, lamenting what she called a desperately tight budget that prevents accurate measure of water resources and limits enforcement.

Like the others, Nishioka fears protracted legal battles as water grows scarce. She said significant resources are siphoned off in court costs.

On Maui, a quiet war already has begun.

Ed Wendt, who grows taro near Hana, organized other residents to go to court. He rallied planters to submit separate petitions to save 29 of perhaps 100 threatened streams.

"It's so ridiculous, we just laugh," he said when asked about the controversy over Ching. "The only way we'll get anything is to fight. I'm pretty optimistic about our chances."

His backers include Ernie Schupp, a 46-year-old carpenter who spends his nights and weekends trying to restore a taro field. Only a fraction of the water he is promised ever reaches his stream.

"Developers want the water," he shrugged, when asked where the remainder went. "Unfortunately, they don't care about anybody else."

Letters to the Maui News reveal a simmering undercurrent.

Jim Hylkema wrote that he was forced off the board of a group that revives Hawaiian fishponds because the tax-exempt Alexander and Baldwin Foundation withdrew support when he criticized Ching's nomination.

Taking up his cause, conservationist Daniel Grantham asked legislators to look into public testimony in support of real estate development by community groups that received support from corporate sources.

Because of Wendt's efforts, authorities have agreed to a three-year study of stream flows by the U.S. Geological Survey.

Chumbley personifies the problem, in Maui and in the wider world beyond. His company sells water that runs from state-owned mountains across his land.

"I'm torn and conflicted," he said. "My vision is publicly owned water. All water in Hawaii should be in public trust." This means the greatest good for the greatest number, he said.

Yet he controls 50 million gallons a day he does not need. Despite objections, he insists his company is entitled to sell it.

"We don't take it all," he said, "but when there are lower levels of rainfall, the stream flows are drastically reduced."

He acknowledged that Maui's main aquifer is being overdrawn up to 27 million gallons a day, dangerously narrowing the margin between fresh water and the surrounding sea.

He called it "shameful" that Hawaii has not been able to enforce its strict water code, particularly on Maui.

"Water is not being managed by anyone," Chumbley said. "Maui has a tremendous amount of water. But we have no system to catch it, store it, transport it. We just waste it."

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