Battle of the flow


POSTED: Monday, May 17, 2010

HAIKU, Maui » Lyn Scott's family has fished in Honopou Stream for centuries and tapped its water to farm the Hawaiian staple taro on stone-lined terraces built by her ancestors.

Up the road, Leonard Pagan helps run irrigation systems at Hawaii's last sugar plantation. He is the fourth generation of his family to work at Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co., going back to his great-grandfather who emigrated from Puerto Rico.

Taro, fish and sugar are all central to Hawaii's rich history and identity. To thrive in this corner of Maui, however, they must all be nourished by the same supply of water. This has triggered an emotional struggle pitting one of Maui's biggest employers—the last representative of Hawaii's once-mighty “;King Sugar”;—against native Hawaiians fighting to hang on to neglected ancient traditions.

“;They're fighting for their way of life, and we're fighting for ours,”; said Wesley Bissen, a 30-year veteran machinist at the plantation, Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co.

The battle is now in its ninth year, dating to 2001, when the Native Hawaiian Legal Corp. filed a petition asking the state to return water to East Maui streams.

In 2008 the state Commission on Water Resource Management ordered the sugar plantation to restore water to eight streams—including Honopou. But Scott says her family is still not getting enough water to fish and farm taro like her ancestors. They are waiting for the commission to respond to a complaint filed by her lawyers.

Scott's counterparts further east along the coast are awaiting another water commission decision in a case that seeks to force the sugar plantation to restore water to 19 additional East Maui streams.

HC&S has agreed to restore water to one of the 19 streams. But officials say the company would have to shut down if it is ordered to give up more, which it says would spark mass layoffs.

“;It might be a big company that is controlling the water, but it employs 800 little people. And that makes a big difference,”; said Pagan, whose family has worked for HC&S since the 1800s.

The commission is expected to announce its decision on the 19 streams this month.

One possible compromise, said Chris Benjamin, HC&S general manager, would have the plantation restore some water to the streams during the winter while holding on to its current diversions during the summer. He said this would allow the plantation to continue to access East Maui water when it needs it the most.

Sugar plantations began diverting water from the streams running through the lush hills and valleys of East Maui in 1876.

Whaling, Hawaii's economic mainstay at the time, was on the decline. Looking for a new source of growth, the Hawaiian kingdom threw its support behind the nascent sugar industry. It gave the plantations permission to divert water from wetter sides of the Hawaiian Islands and channel it to drier plains planted with cane.

Sugar prospered across the state, giving plantation owners a prominent role in running Hawaii after the U.S.-backed overthrow of the monarchy until statehood and the emergence of tourism as an economic force.

On Maui the legacy of water diversion lives on in 24 miles of ditches and 50 miles of tunnels that funnel millions of gallons of water each day from East Maui to HC&S' vast fields in Central Maui.

Scott, 50, grew up seeing taro sprouting from small patches on her family's land at the end of a long, winding dirt road off Maui's Hana Highway.

But the family is now only able to farm nine patches—less than a quarter of the 40 their ancestors cultivated—because there is not enough water coming through Honopou Stream. The limited flow stunts the taro's growth, making it prone to disease.

Native Hawaiians owning land along the 19 streams awaiting the commission's decision also want to fish.

“;Our clients are unable to engage in what was traditionally and customarily done in that area,”; said Moses Haia, another attorney with the Native Hawaiian Legal Corp. “;It's what makes them who they are.”;