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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, September 19, 2003

Maui water-lease auction halted

By Timothy Hurley
Advertiser Maui County Bureau

East Maui taro farmers were claiming victory yesterday in their ongoing battle to keep water in streams for farming and traditional gathering practices.

An O'ahu Circuit Court judge on Wednesday ruled that the state Board of Land and Natural Resources must first consider the farmers, others with rights to the stream water and the environment before allowing the diversion of 60 billion gallons of water per year used primarily to irrigate Hawai'i's largest sugar plantation.

In her ruling, Judge Eden E. Hifo blocked, at least temporarily, the auction of 30-year water leases in East Maui and required the state to conduct an environmental assessment to determine the effects of the water diversion on the land.

"Let the river of justice flow freely," said a happy Ed Wendt, a Wailua Nui taro farmer and president of Na Moku Aupuni O Ko'olau Hui, which, along with two individuals, appealed the BLNR's Jan. 24 decision to auction off the long-term leases.

"It's been hard for us. The dewatering of streams and the water monopoly has been going on for generation after generation," Wendt said.

Meanwhile, officials with Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. said the ruling casts a dark cloud over its 37,000-acre plantation and the 900 workers who depend on it for their livelihood, along with 10,000 water users who rely on the East Maui Irrigation system.

"We don't intend to overstate or exaggerate, but any significant reduction of water flow jeopardizes the viability of HC&S by impacting the security of a long-term water supply," said Stephen Holaday, plantation general manager and vice president Alexander & Baldwin, parent of HC&S.

Holaday also said the ruling will add legal and bureaucratic costs to the leasing process, with Hawai'i's taxpayers and water users paying the bill. An environmental assessment on the 33,000 acre area covered by the leases could cost the state $500,000 or more.

He said the company is considering an appeal of the decision.

BLNR spokesperson Deborah Ward said the agency would wait until the judge issues a written order before discussing what actions would be taken, if any.

The land board approved the auction of 30-year water leases Jan. 24 at the request of A&B, which was seeking more stability for investors after having to renew 16 years of one-year permits.

Approval followed a contested-case hearing brought by the Native Hawaiian Legal Corp., representing taro farmers and other East Maui residents, who argued that Native Hawaiian families have watched water levels in their streams drop or dry up for eight decades as water was diverted from more than 100 streams.

But the board adopted the recommendation of retired judge E. John McConnell, who rejected the environmental-review requirement.

He said the issue of water distribution is the responsibility of the state water commission, which already had begun the scientific studies needed to determine stream standards.

Hifo's ruling reversed the board's action.

"Now A&B and EMI have got to get in line," said Moses Haia, Native Hawaiian Legal Corp. attorney. "They've got to wait until all those with rights to the water for traditional and customary practices are addressed."

EMI's system includes 74 miles of ditches, from Nahiku to Maliko Gulch, which can collect and transport 450 million gallons of water a day, although the daily average is about 160 million gallons, or nearly 60 billion gallons a year.

Company officials say the ditch system diverts only 15 percent of surface water while respecting traditional resource rights. The ditch system isn't big enough to catch all rainwater, they say, leaving most of it to flow to sea.

"A&B has been a steward of this important watershed for more than a century and, during that time, built, maintained and managed this water collection and distribution system to the broad benefit of the community," Holaday said.