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Opponents Want Accountability As Hawai?i Lawmakers Consider Extension of Water Diversions

East Maui Irrigation Co.
East Maui Irrigation Co.

State lawmakers are weighing a bill that would allow a dozen private users statewide, including Alexander and Baldwin, to continue to divert fresh stream water temporarily. The interim permits would remain in place until the state can issue long-term water leases. Critics say the measure ignores the impact even temporary diversions can have on public trust uses like taro farming.


Credit Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation
Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation
Taro patches in Wailuanui tended to by Mahealani Wendt and her husband Ed.

This is water flowing into taro patches in Wailuanui on Maui. It’s a sound you wouldn’t have heard until recently. That’s because for a century, water was diverted to Central Maui for sugar cultivation. A court battle led by taro farmers ended the diversion and restored streamflow to East Maui in 2016.

“The right to farm taro and to sufficient water to farm taro is protected in the Hawai?i Constitution,” says Mahealani Wendt.

She married into a family with a long history of taro farming in Wailuanui.

Credit Kaui Kanakaole
Mahealani & Ed Wendt helped lead a group of taro farmers from Wailuanui and Ke'anae in East Maui to petition Alexander & Baldwin to end diversions of water that would naturally flow to their taro patches.

Wendt is a vocal opponent of House Bill 1326that would extend temporary permits that allow private users to divert the water for purposes like ranching and agriculture.

“Because we were harmed we don't want that practice to continue,” says Wendt, “So we are opposed to the holdover bill on the principle that it allows a continuing use of both land and water resources with no accountability.”

The temporary water permits expire at the end of the year. Besides Alexander & Baldwin, permit holders include Kaua?i and Hawai?i Island electrical utilities, and Big Island ranchers.

Credit Kauai Island Utility Cooperative
Kauai Island Utility Cooperative
Kaua'i Island Utility Cooperative (KIUC) operates five hydroelectric power plants, some of which depend on water diverted from other parts of the island.

“If there is no further extensions or holdovers of the permits they wouldn’t be able to divert the water anymore,” says Ian Hirokawa, special projects coordinator for the Land Division, which oversees the water lease process at the Department of Land and Natural Resources.

A&B spokesman Darren Pai says if the state doesn’t grant the temporary permits, as many as 35,000 Upcountry Maui residents and farmers could lose access to water. So what’s the hold-up?

Credit Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons
Pu'unene Sugar Mill in Central Maui was the final destination for water diverted from East Maui for sugar cultivation.

“It is a very complex process,” says Hirokawa, “We are working as expediently as possible to convert the permits over to long-term leases but I stress this, we need to do it the right way.”

Hirokawa says among the challenges are appraising the value of water rights and setting the minimum amount of water to protect public trust purposes. He says of the twelve revocable permit holders only one is in a position to secure a lease by year’s end.

“A lot of them are still going throug their environmental review,” says Hirokawa, “I know for a lot of the smaller water users there’s a cost issue with complying with a lot of these requirements so we’re trying to see what can be done.”

Credit Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation
Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation
Taro patches can be seen in Wailuanui Valley, Maui.

Pai says lawsuits and regulatory challenges by advocacy groups have caused the longest delays. For Wendt, long-term diversions have their place but only if done properly.

“If it provides for the necessary protections than by all means, the leases should be awarded,” says Wendt.

The Senate Committees on Water and Land and Ways and Means will take up HB 1326 tomorrow morning at the state Capitol.

Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi is a general assignment reporter at Hawaiʻi Public Radio. Her commitment to her Native Hawaiian community and her fluency in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi has led her to build a de facto ʻōiwi beat at the news station. Send your story ideas to her at khiraishi@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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