Compromise critical in Maui water dispute


POSTED: Saturday, December 26, 2009

A state panel's deferral this month of a decision in an emotional controversy about diversion of Maui stream water to irrigate the island's last sugar cane fields has disappointed both sides. Compromise is in order, if possible, to provide needed water for sugar lands while increasing water flows elsewhere.

The staff of the Commission on Water Resource Management recommended maintaining the diversions of 18 east Maui streams to Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. while restoring the natural flow to one, Makipipi Stream. The company has said that eliminating further existing diversions of stream water to sugar fields could shut the operation down.

Laura Thielen, chairman of the commission and of the parent state Department of Land and Natural Resources, said the commission wants to arrive at “;a solution that can help as many people as possible and can restore a great deal of the aquatic life.”;

The commission is to announce its decision in March. Its goal will be difficult to achieve.

Chris Benjamin, the sugar company's general manager, says the company lost $13 million in 2008 and $25 million this year, and it would be impossible to rally from a water shortage created by reduction of water diverted from streams.

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

More than 800 jobs are at stake at HC&S, which has been diverting stream water to its Maui cane fields for more than a century.

Only two months ago, Gay & Robinson Inc. shut down its sugar mill on Kauai after 120 years in business. Its president attributed the company's downfall, resulting in 137 layoffs, to low sugar prices and high energy costs.

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union supports the HC&S desire to limit the elimination of diversions to one of the 19 streams in order to save the jobs. The state Democratic Party supports that position.

The state Office of Hawaiian Affairs, the Native Hawaiian Legal Corp., environmental groups and taro farmers are seeking restorations of water flows in more streams where it has been diverted to sugar fields.

The commission has a legal duty to protect Maui's streams and restore ecological uses, traditional and customary Hawaiian practices, recreation and scenic values.

The challenge facing the commission is to devise a plan to restore enough water flows to bring back aquatic life in the 19 streams while providing enough water for HC&S to stay in operation. Thielen is right in saying that such a compromise would set a precedent that could inspire other states and countries to balance water needs.