WAILUKU » Alexander & Baldwin has announced it will permanently restore water to eight streams in east Maui as Hawaii’s last sugar plantation prepares to close at the end of the year. The decision comes after taro farmers pushed for decades to get the company to stop the century-old practice of diverting streams to irrigate crops.
President Chris Benjamin of A&B, the parent company of Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co., made the announcement Wednesday during a news conference with state legislators. He said streams will be restored and taro farmers will have increased access to water once the plantation shuts down, The Maui News reported.
While legislators supported the decision, those who have challenged the company’s water diversion practices over the years called the announcement “disingenuous.” They said it was meant to influence lawmakers who were scheduled to discuss a water rights bill later in the day.
The Senate-revised version of the legislation would allow holdover state water diversion permits for farmers, ranchers and utilities, and would prevent A&B from continuing to divert east Maui stream water for irrigation. The original House bill called for A&B to maintain its rights to the water while it awaited a final decision from the state on its request for a long-term lease.
The bill was introduced after an Oahu judge invalidated state water diversion permits for A&B for its Maui sugar operations in January. First Circuit Judge Rhonda Nishimura found that the state Board of Land and Natural Resources’ practice of extending revocable permits on a “holdover” basis each year from 2001 to 2014 violated state law.
Mahealani Wendt, an east Maui resident and taro farmer, said A&B’s announcement “is a disingenuous attempt to deflect attention from A&B’s and these politicians’ true intention to put A&B back into House Bill 2501.”
Native Hawaiian Legal Corp., which has represented the taro farmers, said that the farmers should have been included in the news conference.
“Today, history repeats itself, as A&B has once again used its clout to entice certain Hawaii state legislators and agencies to defy – even collude to overturn – a court order declaring A&B’s East Maui diversion of any streams flowing across 33,000 acres of state ceded lands for its commercial enterprise to be illegal,” the corporation said.
A&B said it has already restored water to three steams that feed Wailuanui, the largest taro-growing area in east Maui. A&B plans to submit a letter to the state water commission about the stream restorations, and will ask for the commission’s guidance in returning water to the streams.