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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, June 2, 2006

Maui earmarks $7M in water-rights battle

By Karen Blakeman
Advertiser Staff Writer

A grate atop a dam captures all but the highest flows of 'Iao Stream. Water was originally diverted to irrigate canefields of a now-defunct sugar plantation. Acquisition of such water resources could more than double the availability of drinking water, Maui's mayor says.

STERLING KINI WONG | Office of Hawaiian Affairs

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The fight over water rights an issue reverberating across the state as burgeoning populations make a precious resource even more precious heated up on Maui yesterday after the county appropriated money to pursue possible condemnation procedures against a former plantation company.

Mayor Alan Arakawa signed a budget early yesterday that appropriates $7.2 million toward appraising and acquiring through purchase or condemnation up to 13,000 acres of stream-fed land owned by Wailuku Water Co., previously known as Wailuku Agribusiness Co.

"This is a very significant step, in terms of preserving the environment for future generations and in terms of protecting Native Hawaiian culture," Arakawa said.

The acquisition of the surface water on the land, which feeds Maui's aquifer, could also more than double the amount of drinking water now available to residents, he said, a key concern as housing developments spread across Central Maui.

Wailuku Water Co. president Avery Chumbley, citing ongoing disputes over the water, now before the state Commission on Water Resource Management, declined to comment on the county's move.

Wailuku Agribusiness, once known as Wailuku Sugar Co., has controlled the water in the area, called Na Wai 'Eha, or "four great waters" for the 'Iao, Waihe'e, Waikapu and Waiehu streams that flow through it, for at least a century. The company phased out its farming activities in recent years and became Wailuku Water Co. It continues to divert the streams for water to sell to a golf course and agricultural interests, including Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. and Maui Pineapple Co.

On previous occasions, Chumbley has questioned whether Arakawa was trying to put an end to agriculture on Maui by insisting the streams be allowed to return to their normal mauka-to-makai flow.

Environmental and cultural groups question whether Wailuku Water Co. is "banking" water, and contest the right of the company to control and sell water, which they say the law defines as a public trust resource.

Arakawa said he hoped Maui County's actions would inspire other government entities across the state to take steps to preserve ground water and surface water.

"With the state moving away from an agricultural base, I think it is a good time in history to start looking at where the priorities should be for these water systems," he said.

The Office of Hawaiian Affairs and Earthjustice, representing community groups including Hui o Na Wai 'Eha, have been working with the county on the water rights issue since December, when Earthjustice agreed to drop a case against the county that had been pending before the state Commission on Water Resource Management in exchange for Arakawa's promise to pursue restoration of stream flows in the area.

A series of other cases involving the area are ongoing before the commission, said Earthjustice attorney Kapua Sproat.

Sproat praised Arakawa and the Maui County Council for moving forward to acquire the land.

"This is historic," she said. "They are taking the initiative to protect water resources."

She said Wailuku Water Co. has diverted the streams from their normal courses, blocking their flow between the mountains and the sea.

In addition to decreasing the amount of water that percolates through the ground to the aquifer, the diversions disrupt the normal cycles of native stream life, including 'opae, 'o'opu, and hihiwai, whose larvae float downstream to the ocean and offspring swim toward the mountains.

Before the plantations took over Na Wai 'Eha, the area was blanketed by taro patches, and Jonathan Likeke Scheuer, OHA policy analyst for native rights, land and cultural issues, said many who live along streambeds would like to return to that more traditional way of life.

He said the issues surrounding Na Wai 'Eha have been pending before the "underfunded and understaffed" state Commission on Water Resource Management for years, and he was pleased that the county had decided to take the initiative in the matter.

"Finally," he said, "the mayor and the council are saying: This is way too critical. We can't wait around any longer."

Reach Karen Blakeman at kblakeman@honoluluadvertiser.com.