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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, December 10, 2002

State's water resources at risk

By Jonathan Starr

Fifty years ago in Hawai'i, land ownership was king and the concepts of stewardship, sustainability and the rights of ordinary people in regard to water, land and other natural resources were subservient or nonexistent. Any water, accessible from a property in the form of surface water in streams or ground water from wells, was available for the benefit of the owner or lessee.

Beginning around 1960, the new Democratic majority in Hawai'i's government began to implement a policy known as the Public Trust Doctrine. Under Public Trust, all land controlled by the state, along with water, shoreline, ocean and other natural resources, became protected entities held for the long-term benefit of all of Hawai'i's peoples. Water from the aquifers (and sand from the beaches) could no longer be mined at rates that would cause the destruction of the resource. The intent was to make certain that there would always be water available for future generations. The instruments of this policy are the Hawai'i State Water Code and the State Water Commission, which implements the water code and protects our water resources.

Over the years, the State Water Commission has used scientific tools to create an understanding of our water resources, and has brought water management to areas where the resource has been threatened. It has done a credible job in protecting productive aquifers on O'ahu and Moloka'i, and it is examining Maui's essential and hard-pressed I'ao and North Waihe'e aquifers.

The Water Code ensures water is available for Hawaiian homes, agriculture and domestic use.

Minimum flow standards must be maintained in streams, so that aquatic life continues to exist all the way to the ocean. Water must be made available for the growing of taro and other cultural Hawaiian uses along streams where these practices are a tradition. When the Water Commission manages an aquifer area, every well user must obtain a permit to pump water, and they must report all pumping amounts to the commission.

Sometimes these responsible policies are not popular with current or prospective land owners. Water is becoming the most valuable commodity on earth, and there are global corporate giants that are buying up water rights worldwide.

One of the largest, through a subsidiary called Aquasource, bought the Ka'anapali Water Company from Amfac and charges its customers several times the price that other Maui water users pay. Without governmental management, the water business is quite lucrative. There are a number of entities that would love to own Hawai'i water futures, if only they could do away with management by the Water Commission.

Without the water code, a corporation with sufficient capital that owned even a small property on top of a productive aquifer could drill wells and extract as much water as they wanted from the aquifer, potentially destroying it in the process.

Linda Lingle has told us she will attempt to do away with the state water code and the Water and Land Use commissions. If this occurs, we will have come full circle over 50 years.

However, now that our population is triple what it was in the 1950s and our resources are spread very thin, the people of Hawai'i will pay a very dear price if all management and protections are stripped from our most precious resources.

The golden rule of physics, as it applies to water, is that water flows downhill, or toward gold. Now, shall we expect to see Hawaiian water flow toward many of the Mainland corporate contributors who graced Lingle's gubernatorial campaign?

Perrier anyone?

Jonathan Starr is a Maui County Board of Water Supply member. He has been involved with water issues and development projects for the past 30 years on four continents. He is also chair of the Maui County Democratic Committee.