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Dozens protest bill allowing diversion of Maui water

  • ASSOCIATED PRESS Protesters against a bill to allow companies and other water-rights holders to continue diverting water from Maui streams hold a rally outside of the Alexander & Baldwin Building in Honolulu today.

Kamalani Pahukoa said her family would be able to farm all of their taro patches in Keanae if streams flowing to east Maui are restored.

Right now, the streams are currently being diverted, Pahukoa said. Her family has been growing taro — a Native Hawaiian food staple — for decades, but they has been forced cut back on farming because there’s not enough water, she said.

“As farmers, you can’t live or farm without water,” Pahukoa said. “We’re fighting for our land.”

Pahukoa was one of about 100 protesters gathered outside of land owner Alexander & Baldwin’s offices today to rally against a bill to allow companies and other water-rights holders to continue diverting water from Maui streams. The company owns Hawaii’s last remaining sugar plantation.

The debate over Maui’s water rights started over a century ago when plantations started diverting water from lush east Maui through a system of ditches to irrigate arid sugar cane land. But with Alexander & Baldwin set to stop sugar operations at the end of the year, opponents say the company is just trying to hold onto water rights while it sucks the island dry of a public resource that many hope to restore dry stream beds.

The Hawaii bill was introduced after a Hawaii judge found that Alexander & Baldwin’s water diversion permits were invalid. The most recent version of the bill would allow companies with pending applications for long-term permits to continue diverting water for up to three years.

Lawmakers came to an agreement on the bill shortly after Alexander & Baldwin announced it would permanently restore water to eight east Maui streams. The bill now awaits a floor vote by lawmakers for it to become law.

Opponents of the bill say the sugar company is trying to sidestep the judge’s decision. Alexander & Baldwin opted to change the law, instead of the more common option of asking the court to wait to enforce the ruling, which is being appealed, said Marti Townsend of the Sierra Club of Hawaii.

“They’re using this old-style, old-boy, party politics to influence public policy for all of Hawaii,” Townsend said.

Alexander & Baldwin said in a statement that the bill is a reasonable solution to “significant problems caused by an unexpected judicial decision.” Without the bill passing, the company won’t access state water, which could limit agriculture on Maui, according to Alexander & Baldwin.

“We will not divert any water that isn’t needed for agricultural uses, and already have returned a significant amount of water to the streams,” the company said in a statement. “But if we have no water then diversified agriculture will not be possible.”

Alexander & Baldwin is Hawaii’s fourth-largest private land owner. The company has been growing sugar for over 140 years, but it plans to shift gears and pursue diversified agriculture for its 36,000-acre plantation on Maui.

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  • Battles about the diversion of water on Maui have been fought for 140 years in our courts, legislature and news media.

    In 1876, King Kalakaua issued the first water license to EMI to divert water from East Maui for sugarcane fields in Central Maui. Some years later, when the king moved to issue a similar license to millionaire Claus Spreckels (to settle debts owed to the sugar baron), Ke`anae residents objected.

    “[I]f any of the water rights of the above-described Crown Lands are disposed of, then the king’s subjects, living on said lands, will be in trouble. Because, what the millionaire has done with the waters of other lands is well known, and on account of this trouble which is known, that is why we make this application,” they wrote in an 1881 letter to their government.

    Despite the concerns, Spreckels won the lease. His company, Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar, was later absorbed into what became Alexander & Baldwin.

    Opposition spiked again in 1902, when the government proposed auctioning a lease to divert water from East Maui. Nahiku residents petitioned then-Governor Sanford B. Dole to stop the auction, stating that they had worked hard to cultivate their land and were concerned that the lease would give “the highest bidder the control of all the water which should belong to this district.”

    Again, despite the protest, a lease was awarded to the successful bidder, Henry P. Baldwin.

    In 1939, an agreement between the then-Territory of Hawai`i and A&B/EMI giving both parties shared use of the ditch, established four license areas: Nahiku, Huelo, Honomanu, and Ke`anae. And over the next 40 or so years, the waters of East Maui streams were diverted with little apparent controversy.

    As those licenses began to expire in the 1970s and 1980s, however, protest arose again. This time, legal changes made in the 1960s requiring water leases to be sold at public auction and month-to-month permits to be limited to a maximum term of one year became the focus of contention.

    In July 1976, the local environmental and community activist group Life of the Land protested a Department of Land and Natural Resources recommendation that the Land Board grant A&B a one-year holdover tenancy on its Nahiku lease, which had expired a month earlier.

    The Ke`anae lease had expired in 1972, but EMI was continuing to divert water under a revocable permit from the Land Board. While Life of the Land’s objection focused primarily on the difference in the amount A&B paid the state for the water compared to what A&B charged Maui County for that same water (EMI was paying 0.0018 cent per thousand gallons of water but charged the county 6 cents per thousand gallons), the group also questioned the legality of awarding a revocable permit, year after year, to the same party.

    A&B-HC&S has learned from long experience the value of gaining the loyalty of politicians, hence the fact that the #2 recipient of their cadh donations is Maui Senator and long-time A&B crony, Roz Baker.

    Our senate needs new leadership.

  • IRT ” … it plans to shift gears and pursue diversified agriculture for its 36,000-acre plantation …” his sounds like it could be a Ho’opili exercise. What exactly is their plan to put 36,000 acres into productive agriculture. It is probably more about land banking with a low tax base. Same with the water … banking it for something some day. This bill should honor the judicial system’s judgement. The public trust implies that our natural resources belong to all of us. The politics in this issue his polluting the water.

  • “(to settle debts owed to the sugar baron)” — A lot of the wealth of the Kingdom was squandered away by the Ali’i and lands and land rights were given away to pay off those debts. Maka’ainana do not understand this and continue to fight for everything to be theirs — self-centeredness and selfishness.

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