Maui simmers over water


POSTED: Friday, October 16, 2009

IAO, Maui » Oral arguments have rested in a landmark case before the state Commission on Water Resource Management regarding management of Central Maui's critical stream water resources, but it could be another few months before a ruling is issued, and it is likely to be longer still before the community accepts the decision.

The decision could affect the future of Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co., which will be the state's last remaining sugar plantation after Kauai's Gay & Robinson processes its last sugar cane crop later this month.

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. But, a recommendation before the commission to return about 50 percent of the diverted water back to the streams is challenging the status quo and has pitted large agricultural entities like HC&S and Wailuku Water Co. against smaller taro and subsistence farmers and divided a community.

It was standing room only yesterday at the final hearing, which drew to Iao Congregational Church a few hundred people mostly in support of restoring the streams. However, on Wednesday more than 100 protesters walked Kuulani Highway, and another 700 or so stormed Kahului Shopping Center.

Since 2007 the struggle to define the best use of the streams has resulted in more than 20 hearing dates, brought nearly 80 testifiers before the commission and left thousands of pages of evidence in their wake.

“;We needed to put a reasonable amount of water back into the streams for stream revitalization,”; said Lawrence Miike, the commission hearing officer, who authored the contested plan. “;At the same time, I'm concerned about the economic impacts.”;

William Balfour, the newest water commission member, compared the balancing act to holding a tiger by the tail.

“;We've got a big decision to make, and it's going to be very far-reaching,”; Balfour said. “;God help us.”;

;  When decided, the case will be precedent-setting for Maui, said Laura Thielen, director of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, who chairs the water commission.

“;It's a complicated case, so it could take us a couple of months to decide,”; Thielen said, adding that the commission is also holding fact-finding hearings to discuss water management of 19 East Maui streams.

However, the clock is ticking for HC&S and Wailuku Water, which both said the recommended stream restoration could shutter their businesses.

Last year, HC&S lost more than $13 million to drought, and is projected this year to lose another $25 million, HC&S General Manager Chris Benjamin said.

“;Our board of shareholders is not sitting idly by as our losses mount,”; Benjamin said.

If HC&S closed, 800 jobs would be lost at the company, and the community would lose hundreds of jobs as the impacts rippled, said Willie Kennison, ILWU's Maui division director.

The proposed decision should accommodate all reasonable and beneficial uses of the stream water, said Jane Lovell, deputy corporation counsel for Maui County.

“;The recommendation put the streams first and then only allowed what was left over to be shared,”; Lovell said.

But Isaac Moriwake, an attorney with Earth Justice who presented arguments for the other side, said HC&S and other big businesses are overstating their case.

“;They've gone from using boogeyman threats of a shutdown to outright blackmail by saying that they will shut down,”; Moriwake said.

While HC&S and Wailuku Water have said that they suffer from water shortages, they have enough of a surplus that they are trying to sell some Na Wai Eha water to Maui County for a surface water treatment plant, he said.

HC&S and Wailuku Water also have wasted water, said Pam Bunn, an attorney for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.

“;OHA does support agriculture and municipal water services, but it does not believe that there is enough water to waste,”; Bunn said, adding that those who squander the resource should not be given more.

Kawewehi Pundyke, an Iao taro grower, said stream restoration restores a critical balance between the small farmers and the big businesses and heals the community.

“;The water flowing mauka to makai is about life for everyone,”; Pundyke said. “;Every being needs water to survive.”;