Water needs split community


POSTED: Wednesday, December 16, 2009

PUUNENE, MAUI » If tears could fix Maui's water shortage, the buckets shed by Esther Bugtong would have solved the problem months ago.

Bugtong, who has worked at Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. (HC&S) for the past 23-years, along with her husband, is one of 800 workers whose livelihood has been threatened by the possible return of water that has been diverted for sugar to East and West Maui streams.

“;Sugar is all that I've known,”; Bugtong said. “;My mom and dad worked for HC&S. Most of the people in the neighborhood where I grew up worked there.”;

Sugar pays the Bugtong's mortgage and supports their three daughters, even paying college tuition for one, she said.

“;We depend on HC&S,”; Bugtong said as a tear fell from her eye. “;It's hard to sleep with all that going on.”;

For more than 100 years, Maui's large plantation companies have diverted water from Na Wai Eha, which refers to waters at the mouth of the Waihee River and the Iao, Waiehu and Waikapu streams, and used it to irrigate their crops. The recommendation before the commission to return about 50 percent of the diverted water back to the streams has challenged the status quo and split the community. It has pitted large agricultural entities like HC&S and Wailuku Water Co. against taro and subsistence farmers, and divided families.

The recent closure of Gay & Robinson, Kauai's last sugar plantation, still weighs heavy on the minds of HC&S management who say sugar in Maui cannot survive without adequate water.

The state Commission on Water Resource Management has not made a binding decision regarding management of Central Maui's stream waters. However, today they are slated to set flow standards for 19 East Maui streams.

It has grown increasingly difficult to grow sugar profitably in Hawaii, said Rick Volner Jr., HC&S senior vice president of agricultural operations.

However, until recently, large economies of scale, good soil and growing conditions and a reliable water supply had helped HC&S survive where others had failed, Volner said.

“;Water is the single most important resource available to us,”; he said. “;It drives our finances.”;

Fighting a natural drought has been difficult for HC&S, but it would be impossible for the company, which lost $13 million in 2008 and could lose $25 million by year's end, to rally from an artificially imposed water shortage, said HC&S General Manager Chris Benjamin.

“;With reduced water and reduced revenues, we may have to terminate operations,”; he said.

The closure of the more-than-127-year-old company also would harm many Maui businesses and farmers, Benjamin said.

Craig Rasmussen, owner of 22-year-old Paradise Flower Farms, who farms on HC&S lands in the Kula Agricultural Park, said Maui has enough water for farmers. But he's worried about the future if environmentalists get their wish to fully restore Maui's streams.

“;There is plenty of water for taro growers and HC&S,”; Rasmussen said. “;That's not the issue. It's whether or not we should dump water down the streams for environmental reasons.”;

If Rasmussen and others in the Kula Agricultural Park lost 50 percent of their water, many would have to rethink their volumes, he said.

“;We'd probably have to cut back to one crop and eliminate some of our employees,”; said Rasmussen, whose farm employs 22 full-time workers.

There has got to be a better compromise, said longtime HC&S worker Wesley Bissen, who has lived on Maui for 51 years and comes from three generations of taro growers.

“;It affects me on both sides because of my job and my family,”; Bissen said.

Some water should be returned to taro farmers, but 50 percent is too much, he said.

If water is a public trust, HC&S workers must be considered, too, said Kelly Ruidas, who has worked for the company for 12 years.

“;We are mindful and sensitive to the needs of taro farmers and stream life, but I wonder if they think of us.”;





        The state Commission on Water Resource Management must determine the amount of water required to flow in a stream for the protection of native fish and wildlife, recreation, scenic views and other beneficial stream values. Commissioners also must balance these uses against the need for water for drinking and home use, agriculture, cultivation of taro and hydropower. Water is needed for sugar operations at Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co., which employs 800 workers. And, the streams also must supply surface water to Maui residents for domestic and agricultural use.




        East Maui streams include Waikamoi, Alo, Wahinepee, Puohokamoa, Haipuaena, Punalau/Kolea, Honomanu, Nuaailua, Ohia, West Wailuaiki, East Wailuaiki, Kopiliula, Puakaa, Waiohue, Paakea, Waiaaka, Kapaula, Hanawi and Makapipi streams. West Maui streams include the mouth of the Waihee River and the Iao, Waiehu and Waikapu streams.

Source: State Commission on Water Resource Management