Gov. David Ige is prodding state lawmakers to resurrect a controversial bill that would give public water users, including Alexander & Baldwin, the electric utilities, farmers and others, more time to meet stringent requirements for obtaining long-term leases, a move that has angered opponents of House Bill 1326.
Ige sent a letter today to Senate President Ron Kouchi and House Speaker Scott Saiki that included a memo by his administrative director Ford Fuchigami outlining the impacts on farming, ranching and clean energy projects if HB 1326 is not passed and water permit holders lose access to public water after this year.
“If you believe that the continued holdover of revocable water permits is in the public interest, I recommend that we urge the Legislature to act to avoid the possible adverse ramifications identified above,” Fuchigami wrote in his memo to Ige that was passed on to lawmakers.
Fuchigami’s memo analyzes the legal issues surrounding revocable water permits, saying that there is “no clear path forward” to ensure continued water use for revocable permit holders if HB 1326 isn’t passed.
Fuchigami also outlines the impacts on farmers and ranchers in Ka’u; a handful of domestic water users; Kauai farmers; two hydroelectric plants on Kauai and Hawaii island; and A&B.
In his letter, Ige notes that he has met with various parties, including farmers and ranchers and representatives for the Sierra Club and Earthjustice before forming his views.
Hawaii’s Board of Land and Natural Resources has allowed an assortment of entities to use water from public streams and wells for years under revocable permits that allowed them to sidestep the stringent requirements for obtaining long-term leases, including environmental reviews, watershed management plans, cost appraisals and public auctions. A 2016 court ruling relating A&B’s four water permits on Maui, has cast doubt on the legality of that practice for all of the state’s water users, however.
Without passage of HB 1326, water users are worried that they will no longer be able to get temporary revocable permits, leaving them without water until they can work through the process of obtaining leases, a process they say could take several more years.
Opponents of the measure, however, have said that the bill is really about A&B, which could owe Mahi Pono, which recently bought its vast land holdings in central Maui, as much as $62 million if a certain amount of water isn’t available for its planned farming operations in the coming years.
“To say we are disappointed is an understatement,” said Hawaii Sierra Club Executive Director Marti Townsend in a statement in response to Ige’s letter. “We went to the governor’s office in good faith to proactively chart a path forward based on existing legal authority, and he betrayed that. This letter feels like an abuse of the governorʻs position.
“He is essentially using his office to influence pending legislation to circumvent a court ruling for the benefit of one major corporation. His administration is failing to take responsibility for their role in this situation. It looks like DLNR has done next to nothing on this issue for the last three years, and now as the deadline approaches, and A&B risks losing $62 million, it is a crisis. I do not buy it.”