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Maui residents may get to vote on creating an East Maui Community Water Authority

East Maui Irrigation Co.
East Maui Irrigation Co.

The Maui County Council is considering whether a question should be added to the ballot this November for voters to decide on creating a local water authority in East Maui.

The proposed authority would hold and manage state water leases in the region. There would be an advisory board made up of community representatives from Nāhiku to Huelo.

Jerome Kekiwi Jr. grew up in the taro patches of Keʻanae and Wailuanui. Every week, his family would harvest more than half a ton of kalo. But Kekiwi remembers when the streams stopped flowing to their taro patches.

"It was devastating, you know?" Kekiwi said. "So what we had to do was, what's our kuleana, we had to follow the river, see where the water stay. Just so happens went into the ditch system."

Courtney Collison

For more than 150 years, water in East Maui was diverted to sugarcane fields in Central Maui.

Kekiwi praised the taro farmers who founded the group Nā Moku Aupuni O Koʻolau Hui in the 1990s. They spent decades in court before restoring streamflow in 2015.

"If wasn't for them organizing and stepping up to the plate for fight the giants, I no think we would have the water that we have today. Because now when you drive to Hāna, you see water past the bridge. Before 2015 and prior. you drive Hāna, you no see water past the bridge," he told HPR.

Kekiwi, now president of Nā Moku, sees the proposed East Maui Community Water Authority as an opportunity for his generation to reclaim management kuleana over its water resources.

The proposal comes as the state considers a 30-year lease application for East Maui water by the East Maui Irrigation Company, which is jointly owned by Alexander and Baldwin, and Mahi Pono, a joint agricultural venture between California-based Pomona Farms and a Canadian union pension fund.

Maui County Councilmember Shane Sinenci, who represents East Maui, introduced the resolution proposing localized authority over water in the region.

"I think for my community, 30 years is just too long to have a foreign for-profit entity to have these leases," Sinenci said. "They have a fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders and to make a profit. And so this resolution gives the County of Maui and its citizens the option to control the use of the water for future needs."

Sinenci says the authority would be housed within the county led by an administrator and made up of 11 community members from East Maui as well as experts in engineering, maintenance, watershed management, community engagement, and public finance.

"I totally support this water authority," said Toni Eaton who sits on the Maui County Board of Water Supply. "The only concern I have is how the administrator will be hired. Because if it's going to be if the administrator is going to be appointed by the mayor, then... the administrator’s priorities or their allegiance will be with the mayor. No matter who the mayor is."

Distrust in government and commercial interests run high in communities like East Maui, says Amanda Martin, Kekiwi’s cousin. She asks who better to manage the area’s resources than those whose kupuna have been stewarding the ‘āina for generations.

"Our grandparents and our great-grandparents – they were all kalo farmers. We support this water authority because we will be at the table," Martin said. "No longer will we sit in the corner and let everybody bypass our community. Nope. We are here and we’re not going away."

The resolution was heard Wednesday, June 15 by the Maui County Council Committee on Government Relations, Ethics, and Transparency.

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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