Water legislation sparks opposition
State lawmakers are considering allowing Alexander & Baldwin Inc., the state’s electrical utilities on Kauai and Hawaii island and a number of farming and ranching operations to continue using public water for another seven years even if they haven’t completed environmental reviews, consultations with Native Hawaiians about water needs, appraisals and, in some cases, public auctions — requirements envisioned by Hawaii’s laws protecting the state’s water resources.
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State lawmakers are considering allowing Alexander &Baldwin Inc., the state’s electrical utilities on Kauai and Hawaii island and a number of farming and ranching operations to continue using public water for another seven years even if they
haven’t completed environmental reviews, consultations with Native Hawaiians about water needs, appraisals and, in some cases, public auctions — requirements envisioned by Hawaii’s laws protecting the state’s water resources.
Members of the House
Water, Land and Hawaiian
Affairs Committee advanced House Bill 1326 on Friday over the strong objections of environmentalists and Native Hawaiian groups who turned out to oppose the measure.
The hearing was a replay of a fight that took place at the Legislature in 2016 when Alexander &Baldwin and other companies lobbied lawmakers to allow them to hold onto their water permits — which by law were not supposed to be extended beyond a year — while they worked to convert them to leases.
Hawaii’s Board of Land and Natural Resources had been extending the permits for years, and sometimes decades, allowing water users to skirt stringent lease requirements and access water at low costs.
A January 2016 court ruling relating to Alexander &Baldwin’s diversion of millions of gallons of water daily from dozens of East Maui streams brought the problem of the annual permit renewals into sharp focus. The Legislature subsequently allowed water permit holders three years to correct the problem, but as that deadline now fast approaches, none of the companies have come into compliance.
Under an amended version of this year’s HB 1326, water users would be given another seven years to complete the process of converting permits to leases. Rep. Ryan Yamane, chairman of the House Water, Land and Hawaiian Affairs Committee, said it likely would take that long for some of the smaller companies to come up with enough money to complete the environmental review process.
Marti Townsend, executive director of the Hawaii
Sierra Club, called the proposed seven-year deadline “ridiculous.”
“It really challenges people’s faith in the process,” she said. “They can’t rely on their lawmakers to uphold their rights.”
Summer Sylva, an attorney for the Native Hawaiian Legal Corp., called the bill “deeply offensive and profoundly dispiriting” during public testimony Friday. The law firm has represented East Maui taro farmers and Native practitioners in a two-decades-long legal battle against Alexander &Baldwin over its diversion of stream water.
In addition to Alexander &Baldwin, other companies accessing water under the short-term permits include East Kauai Users Cooperative, Hawaii Electric Light Co., Kapalala Ranch, Kauai
Island Utility Cooperative, Kuahiwi Contractors, Jeffrey Linder, Edmund Olsen Trustee and Wood Valley
Water &Farm Cooperative, according to information from the state Department of Land and Natural Resources. The projects are on Maui, Kauai and Hawaii island.
Darren Pai, a spokesman for Alexander &Baldwin, said that the company has made significant progress in obtaining a water lease and expects to provide DLNR with a final environmental impact statement in the first quarter of 2020. The company said technical studies had been held up while it awaited findings by state
water officials on in-stream flow levels.
The company said many of the tasks required to complete the lease process depend upon DLNR, including conducting an appraisal, drafting a lease document, developing criteria for a watershed management plan and preparing to put the lease out for public auction.
The Kauai Island Utility Cooperative, which uses
water for a hydroelectric plant, said it too has made significant progress and could submit its final lease application to the department by the end of the year.
During Friday’s hearing Ian Hirokawa, a special-projects coordinator for DLNR, suggested that the onus was on the permit holders to complete the lease process.
But Yamane pointed the finger at DLNR, saying the
department and its board had yet to come up with a workable plan to help permit holders obtain long-term leases, noting small companies, in particular, were struggling to afford the environmental review process.