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BREAKING: Historic Release – Water to Flow at Multiple East Maui Streams

Wendy Osher · April 20, 2016, 10:24 AM HST (Updated April 21, 2016, 5:16 AM) · 2 Comments
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Maui Now Graphic. Background Image credit: Chris Archer.

Maui Now Graphic. Background Image credit: Chris Archer.

In a landmark announcement today, Alexander & Baldwin announced the release of water to several East Maui streams.

The decision to “fully and permanently” restore water to priority streams associated with taro farming comes after years of legal wrangling over water rights and demands from area kalo farmers and residents seeking a return of mauka to makai flows.

In a statement today, executives with A&B said they plan to continue to participate in the current East Maui interim instream flow standard proceedings to address appropriate restoration of other streams in the area.

The streams that were identified for permanent restoration of water include the priority streams identified jointly in 2001 by the State Commission on Water Resource Management and the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation on behalf of its East Maui clients.  The streams include: Honopou, Hanehoi (Puolua), Waikamilo, Kualani, Piʻinaʻau, Palauhulu, and Wailuanui (East and West).

Company executives say they will work to restore streams “as quickly as possible.”  As of this morning, three streams that feed the largest taro growing area in East Maui, Wailuanui, were completely restored, with diversion grates fully opened to allow water to flow back into the stream, according to A&B.

“In January, we announced the closure of sugar operations at HC&S at the end of this year, and the transition to a diversified agricultural model.  While that announcement brought with it many regrettable impacts, particularly to our employees, it also presents some opportunities.  One such opportunity is to restore these streams on a permanent basis, and increase water availability to the East Maui taro farmers,” said Chris Benjamin, president and chief executive officer of A&B in a statement this morning.

He continued saying, “Restoration of these priority streams will be implemented as soon as possible. In some cases, we are able to remove diversions immediately, while others will require reconstruction,” Benjamin said. “Our hope is to work with the East Maui community as we implement this stream restoration plan, as well as on other water matters,” he said.

According to company executives, A&B will submit a letter to the State Commission on Water Resource Management, informing them of the decision to permanently stop diverting the water in the streams identified above.  The letter is also expected to include a request for the Commission’s guidance in restoring the streams in what company representatives called, “the most expeditious and cooperative way possible.”

In response to the announcement members of the state legislature expressed their appreciation and support, but the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation weighed in saying they and taro farmers directly affected were noticeably absent from the press conference announcement.  The corporation claims the diversion of any streams flowing across 33,000 acres of state ceded lands for commercial enterprise is illegal and vowed to continue its fight until all water diversions are restored to their streams and communities of origin. (*Comments from both sides are included below).

Prior to today’s announcement, advocates for the restoration of East Maui’s streams had planned to take their concerns directly to A&B after House Bill 2501 SD advanced in the legislature last week.  The group had planned to hold a demonstration at A&B’s shareholder meeting on Tuesday, April 26, 2016 at A&B’s headquarters on Bishop Street in Honolulu.  Comment from those affected by the new announcement was not immediately available.

Legislative Leaders Express Support of Release

In response to the announcement members of the state legislature expressed their appreciation and support.

“I see this as a promising approach to finding real solutions to the many water rights issues on Maui,” said House Speaker Joseph M. Souki in a statement.  “With the end of sugar, Maui is truly at an important turning point, entering unchartered territory.  We need to re-think old assumptions and look for resolutions beyond the purview of the courts.”

“While there are still details to be hammered out and much work to be done, I am hopeful that this first step puts us in the right direction and toward productive compromise on waters rights issues on Maui,” Souki said.

“The announcement to restore these streams is a good first step and a starting point in the healing process on Maui,” said Senator Mike Gabbard, chair of the Senate’s Water, Land and Agriculture Committee in a press release. “As I said in committee hearings, and on the Senate floor, we need to roll up our sleeves and continue our work to find the middle ground. I’m hopeful that the restoration of these streams helps us find a productive compromise that’s fair to folks on both sides of this debate.”

“The restoration of water in the streams is a step in the right direction.  The Legislature is committed to providing the additional resources to assess the health of our streams,” said Representative Ryan Yamane, chair of the House Water and Land Committee.  “This will protect the future use of Hawaii’s important agricultural lands.  The preservation of our water and our land is a priority for the health and vitality of Maui’s agricultural production which is key to Maui’s resilience.”

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Maui Lawmakers Respond in Unison Commending A&B

Maui State Senators were in unison commending Alexander and Baldwin in their announcement to restore seven streams in East Maui and commit to transition former HC&S lands to diversified agriculture.

“A&B’s unilateral decision to restore 100 percent of the water in East Maui streams is an excellent beginning point for all of us to begin the healing process, said Sen. J. Kalani English, senate majority leader.  “Many Hawaiian families – my family – has had generations of suffering and pain over the loss of water.  Today I hope that we can begin reconciliation as the waters flow again in East Maui.”

He joined the Maui senatorial delegation in releasing further thoughts in which he said: “For my people in Hāna and East Maui this is a special day because water finally flows in our streams after more than a hundred years. This begins the healing and reconciliation process that my families in Hāna, and the Hawaiian people need. For generations we’ve had bred into us that water was taken from us without proper consultation, without just compensation,” said Senate Majority Leader, Sen. J. Kalani English, (Dist. 7 – Hāna, East and Upcountry Maui, Moloka‘i, Lāna‘i, Kaho‘olawe). “Thank you to A&B for taking that first step to provide water to the important streams, particularly Wailuanui. Returning this water symbolically releases generations of animosity, pain and suffering, so our future generations can live in harmony. I look forward to working with A&B in moving this forward and ensuring that the 37,000 people in Upcountry Maui who depend on this water for drinking and irrigation, and the people in Central Maui who will need water for crops, continue to be able to access water.”

“As someone who grew up, lives and represents Central Maui, I’m hopeful it will remain in diversified agriculture. This is a step forward in making sure that possibility is real and I’m hopeful this start will lead to some continued sharing of the water in a way that’s much more equitable and builds our community,” said Sen. Gilbert Keith-Agaran (Dist. 5 – Wailuku, Waihe‘e, Kahului).

“I applaud Alexander and Baldwin for their action to permanently restore water to the seven Maui streams,” said Sen. Rosalyn Baker (Dist. 6 – South and West Maui).  “I also appreciate A&B’s commitment to diversified agriculture in the Central Maui plain, as well as their continued commitment to the preservation of their lands designated as important agricultural lands in perpetuity.  Some had questioned whether A&B would try to take the IAL lands out of ag for development, however today’s announcement to move forward with the transition to diversified agriculture is indeed welcomed news.”

Representative Lynn Decoite also commented saying: “On behalf of District 13, MAHALO to A&B for releasing water back to East Maui Streams. This was a long awaited court battle that brought to light what should have been done a long time ago. As I mentioned in my comments to the House Journal for HB 2501 – ‘The people of East Maui have waited patiently and far too long for justice to be served.’ The release of water today is a good faith effort on A&B’s part.  I hope this in some way will bring security that East Maui farmers will have water going forward. My Constituents and I will continue to monitor the streams and the ongoing water to East Maui.”

Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation Critical, Vows to Work for Justice

The Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation responded as well saying calling the press conference a “staged event” and saying the firm’s dedication to justice “will not falter.”

“Today, A&B executives and state legislators participated in a press conference lauding their piecemeal return of East Maui streams. Noticeably absent from the staged event were the East Maui taro farmers for whom the wai (water) has been a lifeblood denied them for more than a century. Over one hundred years ago, shrewd and politically-savvy sugar barons acquired control of vast amounts of land and resources to exploit for their commercial enterprises. And when then-existing laws threatened to curb their avarice, they successfully used their clout to entice the U.S. government to overthrow the Hawaiian Kingdom. Today, history repeats itself, as A&B has once again used its clout to entice certain Hawai‘i 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. 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. 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.”

East Maui Taro Farmer Says Court Has Already Invalidated A&B’s Authority

Māhealani Wendt, East Maui resident and taro farmer responded with the following statement:

“Beginning with our kupuna, our East Maui community has worked long and hard, including participating in the required legal process for decades, to restore water to the streams of our watersheds to regain the balance lost through 140 years of continuous and increasing stream diversions. While it hasn’t happened yet, we are at a complete loss as to why and how A&B and certain legislators can now simply hold a press conference, and just like that, announce that water will be restored after the Court has already invalidated any authority A&B has to take that water in the first place. This stunt completely disregards and belittles our community’s 140 year struggle to enforce our individual and collective rights to that water. To suggest via this announcement that A&B is voluntarily and willingly restoring water is disingenuous. The water from these streams is not and has never been A&B’s property. It is a critical component of this state’s public trust resources. Streamflow restoration will allow us to begin the great work of restoring our taro lands and many other important elements of our community lost as a result of these diversions. 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 from A&B’s and these politicians’ true intention to put A&B back into House Bill 2501. If this is, in fact, the case, we call upon Governor Ige to veto the bill should it be passed by the legislature.”

*Below: Archive footage of the East Maui Water battle.

Wendy Osher
Wendy Osher leads the Maui Now news team. She is also the news voice of parent company, Pacific Media Group, having served more than 15 years as News Director for the company’s six Maui radio stations.

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