Governor Asks Lawmakers to Revive Water Rights Bill

Apr 18, 2019

Credit East Maui Irrigation Co.

Gov. David Ige has asked state lawmakers to revive a bill that would extend water permits held by private users, a measure that a Senate committee shelved earlier this session.

The legislation would extend temporary permits for diversions of stream water for about a private users statewide, including Alexander and Baldwin, utilities on Kauai and Hawaii Island, and small farmers and ranchers statewide.

House Bill 1326 missed a crucial deadline in early April when it was deferred by the Senate Ways and Means Committee. 

Last week, farmers, ranchers and others lobbied lawmakers to pull the measure from the committee, a relatively rare move in the Legislature, and submit it to a vote of the full Senate. They said hundreds would lose their access to water at the end of the year if the bill, an extension of state Act 126, is not passed.

In a letter to Senate President Ron Kouchi and House Speaker Scott Saiki, Ige said the impact of the measure would be widespread.

"Water is a critically important issue, and for this reason, there is a lot of emotion tied to decisions about water use," the governor said. But he noted "it is clear that the law cannot be applied in a discriminatory fashion, that all water permittees and applicants must comply with the law and that cannot be specially enforced against some permittees and applicants but not others."

Opponents of the bill have often cited Alexander and Baldwin in arguing that special interests unfairly divert the stream water.

"We are deeply disappointed in Governor Ige’s decision to use the power of his position to pressure lawmakers to pass a version of HB1326 that guarantees A&B retains $62 million in profit from East Maui’s public stream resources," Marti Townsend, director of the Sierra Club of Hawaiʻi, said in a press release responding to Ige's letter.

Speaker Saiki said in a news statement that it's up to the Senate to act on the house bill.

He said the governor's letter clarifies some of the questions that have been raised about the water permits.

"Going forward, we know that the Department of Land and Natural Resources and Attorney General must improve the permit application process," he said. But he added: "At this point, it is up to the Senate to determine whether to act upon H.B. 1326."

Senate President Kouchi issued a short statement in response to the governor's letter, but it fell short of committing to a revival of the bill: “We will continue communicating and working with the governor and the administration on addressing this issue," Kouchi said.

Updated: April 18, 2019, 4:16 p.m.