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Maui taro farmers celebrate judge’s ruling on stream water diversions

An Oahu Circuit Court judge has struck down a state practice of continuously issuing one-year revocable permits to Alexander & Baldwin Inc. to divert millions of gallons of irrigation water daily from streams in East Maui.

Taro farmers in East Maui called Circuit Judge Rhonda Nishimura’s ruling a “landmark decision.”

“It has a great impact on our traditional and customary rights,” said Ed Wendt, president of Na Moku Aupuni o Ko‘olau Hui.

“All we’ve wanted is for the river of justice to flow freely for everybody and protect our fragile environment,” he said.

In a partial summary judgment, Nishimura ruled Jan. 8 that the use of one-year revocable permits issued by the state Department of Land and Natural Resources was intended to be “temporary.”

“A&B’s continuously uninterrupted use of these public lands on a holdover basis for the last 13 years is not … temporary,” Nishimura said in her order. “Such a prospect is inconsistent with the public interest and legislative intent.”

Nishimura, who is still reviewing other aspects of the legal conflict between taro farmers and A&B, did not spell out a process to implement her ruling.

A&B spokeswoman Tran Chinery said the company disagrees with the judge’s decision and has asked her to reconsider it.

“We have been following the procedures for securing a state water lease since 2001, but the process has been repeatedly delayed due to numerous legal challenges by those opposing diversions of stream water,” Chinery said.

The ruling affects streams and tributaries from Nahiku to Huelo, an area that A&B has drawn upon to irrigate 36,000 acres of sugar cane land and provide water to the county for 36,000 residents and farmers.

A&B recently announced it would halt growing sugar in about a year but would continue to operate the water company East Maui Irrigation.

Wendt said an environmental assessment of tributaries and streams was supposed to be conducted more than a decade ago to determine how to protect the environment, including native plants and animals, but none was done.

He said when hiking in the mountain areas, he’s seen an increasing overgrowth of alien species.

“Everything is covered up with invasive species. It’s terrible,” he said.

Wendt, who can trace his ancestors growing taro for six generations in East Maui, said at one time he was president of the taro association on Maui and had 52 taro patches.

He said he has reduced the amount of taro he farms because of inconsistencies in the water provided to taro farmers.

He said the lack of water has also prevented many native fish, shellfish and shrimp from propagating.

“We want to do something to get water back,” he said.

State officials said the issue was in litigation and declined to comment.

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