Report on Land Board’s East Maui Permits Decision

By Lucienne de Naie, Maui Group Conservation Committee Chair

December 15, 2016

The tug of war over East Maui stream waters sends a clear message: the state and counties need a post-plantation, 21st century water policy. This is the only way to provide what everyone wants: a reliable water supply, fairly distributed, and managed as a real Public Trust resource.

On December 9th, East Maui taro farmers, residents, and statewide supporters rallied inside and outside a Board of Land and Natural Resource (BLNR) hearing in Honolulu, to deliver just that message. The State’s “business as usual” water policies were not working to provide reliable public water supplies and create a new agricultural future for all of Maui.

Over 40 people testified, asking the BLNR to not automatically rubber stamp the Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar (HC&S) request to “holdover” or renew annual Revocable Permits that have allowed over 60 billion gallons a year of stream water to be diverted from state lands for many decades. Testifiers wanted the Board to demand clear proof of how much stream water the former plantation would actually need in 2017, now that it had ceased sugar operations.

The O’ahu location meant only a handful of East Maui residents were able to attend in person, but their story was compelling: generations struggling to have enough water to practice traditional farming and gathering and pass on their culture. Many East Maui testifiers simply asked that the water be fairly shared, while supporting sufficient water for Upcountry residents, farmers and ranchers relying on the East Maui streams. Sierra Club Maui has also long supported the water needs of Upcountry Maui residents, farmers and ranchers. Maui Group advocated for expanded Upcountry reservoir capacity to increase water security, and for Maui County to repair the aged Waikamoi flume system that lost 40% of the stream water it transported to upcountry system users (accomplished in 2015.)

Maui Group also strongly supports continued agricultural use of the former HC&S sugar lands and employment opportunities for former HC&S workers. Like the other testifiers, Sierra Club wanted the Board to make sure that there was actual farming planned for 2017, that sustainable farming practices would be used to promote water efficiency and the needs of traditional farmers and gatherers would be fully met as we move forward into Maui’s new agricultural future. Maui Group has testified for years that improved efficiency in the HC&S and Upcountry water systems would allow for more water to be shared by plantation lands, rural residents, and farming communities across the island.

Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar has said that seventeen percent (5,100 acres) of its 30,000 acres of land currently served by East Maui stream water will convert to cattle grazing and a County ag park in 2017. Future plans, based upon a map submitted to the State Water Commission in October of this year, call for possible bio-energy crops, a dairy, seed crops and large leased areas. The problem is, there currently is no timeline for those future uses and no hard data on how much water will be needed when. This made the BLNR decision tough.

After over 6 hours of public testimony, an Executive Session, and extensive board member discussions, the BLNR approved HC&S’s revocable permits, with conditions. Conditions included: capping extraction from East Maui streams at 80 million gallons per day (mgd) [HC&S’s goal was 116 mgd], supporting a July 2016 Water Commission order mandating fully restored stream flow in 14 East Maui taro growing streams, adding Honomanu Stream to the list of streams to be restored, and requiring removal of all unused diversion structures impeding the health of the native stream species.

The BLNR’s ruling was a compromise. It provides the community with new tools to protect some streams and gives HC&S a chance to prove its new farming plans are real. The imposition of a cap shows that community concerns were heard.

The Sierra Club of Hawai’i applauds Land Board members Sam Ohu Gon III and Keone Downing who recognized that there is inadequate information on streamflow and water use to make an informed decision, and therefore, voted against the permit renewal.

We will continue to stand with the East Maui community and the people of Maui to support water policies that are fair for all and follow our laws.