It took six years for the state Commission on Water Resource Management to issue a decision on a controversial Maui contested case hearing, and the battle isn’t over yet. But while that conflict is likely to rage on at the next level – in court – the administrative decision includes a directive that should not be ignored: More water conservation efforts must be part of any plans for growth, on Maui or any other island in the state.
The recent decision orders large-scale users of surface water from Na Wai Eha, four West Maui streams, to restore some of it to the flow that feeds taro farms and other uses downstream.
The trouble is, it restores only about a third as much as was recommended by the contested hearings officer in the case, Lawrence Miike, a member of the commission who studied the circumstances in great depth. Miike filed a dissenting opinion protesting the decision. There’s a lot of debate over the potential effects of maintaining various stream flow standards, but Miike argued that it’s the commission’s job to err on the side of protecting the resource.
"Where there are present or potential threats of serious damage, lack of full scientific certainty should not be a basis for postponing effective measures to prevent environmental degradation," Miike wrote.
If environmental attorneys do as they’ve promised and take the decision to a Circuit Court judge, it’s sure to affect the 125 applications for individual water use permits that the commission will have to take up next. These permits are required because the commission designated the Na Wai Eha streams as a surface water management area, which means the bar is raised a bit higher for any party wanting to use water there. The commission may grant a permit for an agricultural use but deny it for some other purpose deemed unreasonable.
According to the decision: "Applicants must show that their offstream uses are reasonable and beneficial and that there are no practical alternative resources. In other words, existing diverters do not have a continued right to divert waters even if the volume of the diversion is below the minimum levels of water mandated to remain in the stream."
The key point is that phrase: "no practical alternative resources." There is one, and it’s frequently overlooked: water that is wasted.
Those who stand guard over the public water supply can’t afford to wait until legal action abates to advocate aggressively for conservation.
In the context of Maui’s streams, the water delivery system is at least partly a legacy of the agriculture industry, and much of it is degraded and leaking, said Laura Thielen, director of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources.
Those seeking water permits in the Na Wai Eha region at least will be expected to invest in more efficient systems, and to reclaim used water where it’s practical, Thielen said.
"What we’re trying to say is that water isn’t free, and you need to start treating it as if it’s very valuable," she added.
Na Wai Eha is the commission’s first and, so far, only surface water management area, so named in 2008. It’s a good start, and the commission needs to find ways to expand this means of stricter water control. This Maui region was seen as a good candidate because of all the competing demands in an area of diminished supply, with recent drought conditions exacerbating the situation.
Surely there are other areas that deserve this special care.