Alexander & Baldwin has pledged to fully and permanently restore water to seven streams in East Maui that it’s been diverting to irrigate its sugar cane fields, the company’s CEO, Chris Benjamin, announced Wednesday while flanked by powerful members of the state House and Senate.
But the announcement is doing little to quell the fight over water rights on Maui, where the company has been diverting tens of millions of gallons of water a day from dozens of streams, leaving streambeds dry and taro farmers without enough water.
“We do believe that whatever crops we grow in the future will not be as thirsty as sugar cane. It’s hard to say exactly how much we need and it’s hard to say exactly how much water flows through those streams.” – Chris Benjamin, Alexander & Baldwin CEO, pictured speaking above at a news conference Wednesday flanked by state lawmakers
Within minutes of the news conference, attorneys for Maui taro farmers panned the announcement, arguing that the stream restorations don’t go far enough. They also maintained that the company’s continued diversions from roughly 30 other streams and dozens of tributaries defy a January court order that invalidated the company’s water permits.
They also criticized the announcement as a well-timed bid by lawmakers to seek political cover for the potential passage of a controversial measure, House Bill 2501, which could allow A&B to circumvent the court order and maintain rights to the stream water while the state Board of Land and Natural Resources makes a final decision on A&B’s application for a long-term lease.
Key members of the Senate and House debated HB2501 during a conference committee hearing later in the afternoon, but didn’t come to an agreement and will meet again today to hash out their differences. A Senate committee recently amended the bill in a way that members say precludes A&B from being covered. Key House members want A&B reinserted into the bill.
“It is a sad testament to the level of trust between our community and A&B and the state when the only conclusion we can draw after hearing their announcement is that it is a disingenuous attempt to deflect attention for A&B’s and these politicians’ true intention to put A&B back into House Bill 2501,” Mahealani Wendt, an East Maui taro farmer and past director of the Native Hawaiian Legal Corp., which is suing A&B, said in a statement released after the news conference.
For more than a century, A&B has been diverting water from dozens of streams and tributaries that flow through East Maui, primarily to irrigate thousands of acres of sugar cane fields. Some of the water also goes to supply about 36,000 Upcountry residents and farmers.
However, in January Circuit Judge Rhonda Nishimura ruled that the four state permits A&B had been operating under to divert the water were invalid. The Land Board had been allowing the company to divert the water for more than a dozen years under revocable permits that are supposed to be for temporary uses only.
A&B has been seeking a long-term lease for the water since 2001, but the application has been bogged down in ongoing legal and administrative challenges.
The court case is currently being appealed.
Shortly after the court ruling, A&B announced that it planned to close its sugar cane plantation and lay off more than 600 workers by the end of the year.
The court ruling and A&B’s plans to cease sugar cane operations have amplified the calls from taro farmers, represented by the Native Hawaiian Legal Corp., and environmentalists to restore stream flows.
A&B says it needs to hold on to the rights to some of the water to support its attempts to transition the fields from sugar cane to diversified agriculture, as well as support the water needs of Upcountry residents.
Benjamin told reporters at the state Capitol on Wednesday morning that while A&B’s decision to close its sugar cane plantation “brought many regrettable impacts, particularly to our very loyal employees and their families, it also presents opportunities.”
“One such opportunity is the restoration of stream flows for taro cultivation in East Maui,” he said.
Benjamin said he did not know how much water would actually be restored to the seven streams, or what percentage this would represent out of the total amount of water that A&B diverts. He said the company also plans to restore water to other streams as it finishes harvesting its last sugar cane crop. But he emphasized that the water to the seven streams identified as priority waterways for taro farming would be permanent.
“The water needs for us are going to decline as the year goes on,” he said. “We’ve already returned a lot of water to East Maui streams as a result of needing less. We are not diverting anything that we don’t need for our agricultural uses.”
As the company begins trials to grow other crops and support cattle, he said that the company’s water needs will grow.
“Plans are very much premature,” he said. “We do believe that whatever crops we grow in the future will not be as thirsty as sugar cane. It’s hard to say exactly how much we need and it’s hard to say exactly how much water flows through those streams.”
Joining Benjamin at the news conference were House Speaker Joseph Souki, Sen. Kalani English, Sen. Mike Gabbard and Rep. Ryan Yamane, who offered comments of support.
Souki thanked A&B for “moving the discussion forward in a positive way.”
“I hope that this first step will lead to a willingness by all parties to work through compromise to accommodate others, because at the end of the day all of our interests are linked together, just as our individual successes and failures are linked to our collective one,” said Souki (D, Waihee-Waiehu-Wailuku).
English (D, Molokai-Lanai-East Maui) also praised A&B’s decision, saying it “was a very special day.”
“It begins the healing and reconciliation process that my families in Hana and my Hawaiian people need to do,” he said. “Because for generations, we have had this bred into us this idea that the water was taken from our families without proper consultation and without just compensation.”
However, environmentalists and attorneys with the NHLC had a very different response to A&B’s announcement.
Summer Sylva, an attorney with NHLC, told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that it wasn’t up to A&B to decide how much water it wanted to put back into the streams. She said the company’s continued diversion of the water, based on the recent court ruling, is illegal.
Sylva said that about 600 residents from the Keanae-Wailuanui area have been harmed by A&B’s water diversions, which have limited taro farming, fishing, customary gathering practices and recreation.
“The fact that the restoration is being couched as a new opportunity belies what is actually a legal obligation to restore not just these streams, but others,” Sylva said. “As of Jan. 8, any diversion for a commercial purpose is illegal. So it really disappoints us that state legislators would stand with A&B in what we consider an announcement that defies a standing court order.”
She said it’s not clear how much water will actually flow through the seven restored streams — it could be nominal or significant — underscoring problems with the state’s oversight of water resources. An environmental review and establishment of minimal water flow standards in the streams were supposed to be completed before water was diverted or when NHLC brought its contested case — two processes that have yet to be completed.
Moses Haia, NHLC’s executive director, also released a strongly worded statement criticizing A&B’s “piecemeal return of East Maui streams.”
“In 2001, taro farmers, gatherers, and fishermen and women from East Maui banded together with their allies to utilize the existing legal system to end A&B’s wholesale theft of East Maui water aided and abetted by state agencies,” he said in the statement. “Unless and until all water illegally diverted by A&B is restored to their streams and communities of origin, our commitment to justice for the streams and justice for Hawaiian communities will never cease or falter.”