Native Hawaiians seek water diverted for sugar
By AUDREY McAVOY
HA'IKŪ, Maui — Lyn Scott's family has fished in Honopou stream for centuries and tapped its water to farm taro on stone-lined terraces built by her ancestors.
Up the road, Leonard Pagan helps run irrigation systems at Hawai'i's last sugar plantation. He's the fourth generation of his family to work at Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co., going back to his great-grandfather who emigrated from Puerto Rico.
Taro, fish and sugar are all central to Hawai'i's history and identity. To thrive in this corner of Maui, however, they must all be nourished by the same supply of water. This has triggered an emotional struggle pitting one of Maui's biggest employers — the last representative of Hawai'i's once-mighty "King Sugar" — against Native Hawaiians fighting to hang on to neglected old traditions.
"They're fighting for their way of life and we're fighting for ours," said Wesley Bissen, a 30-year veteran machinist at the plantation, Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co.
The battle is now in its ninth year, dating to 2001 when the Native Hawaiian Legal Corp. filed a petition asking the state to return water to East Maui streams.
In 2008, the state water commission ordered the sugar plantation to restore water to eight streams — including Honopou. But Scott said her family's still not getting enough water to fish and farm taro like her ancestors. They're waiting for the water commission to respond to a complaint filed by her lawyers.
Scott's counterparts further east along the coast are awaiting another decision from the water commission in a case that seeks to force the sugar plantation to restore water to 19 additional East Maui streams.
HC&S has agreed to restore water to one of the 19 streams. But officials said the company would have to shut down, sparking mass layoffs, if it's ordered to give up more.
"It might be a big company that is controlling the water but it employs 800 little people. And that makes a big difference," said Pagan, whose family has worked for HC&S since the 1800s.
The water commission is expected to announce its decision on the 19 streams this month.
One possible compromise, said Chris Benjamin, HC&S general manager, would have the plantation restore some water to the streams during the winter while holding on to its current diversions during the summer, when it needs it the most.
Benjamin said it's hard to say how HC&S would respond if the commission rules against it. "It would depend on what they decide to do."
Sugar plantations began diverting water from the streams running through the lush hills and valleys of East Maui in 1876.
Whaling, Hawai'i's economic mainstay at the time, was on the decline. Looking for a new source of growth, the Hawaiian kingdom threw its support behind the nascent sugar industry. It gave the plantations permission to divert water from the wetter sides of the Hawaiian islands and channel it to drier plains planted with sugar cane.
Sugar prospered across the state, giving plantation owners a prominent role in running Hawai'i after the U.S.-backed overthrow of the monarchy and through into statehood and the emergence of tourism as an economic force.
On Maui, the legacy of water diversion lives on in 24 miles of ditches and 50 miles of tunnels that funnel millions of gallons of water each day from East Maui to HC&S' vast fields in Central Maui.
Scott, 50, grew up seeing taro sprouting from small patches on her family's land at the end of a long, winding dirt road off Maui's Hana Highway.
But the family is now only able to farm nine patches — less than a quarter of the 40 their ancestors cultivated — because there's not enough water coming through Honopou stream. The limited flow stunts the taro's growth, making it prone to disease.
Taro is perhaps the most important crop in Native Hawaiian culture. It's used to make poi, part of the traditional diet. And, according to legend, the taro plant and the boy who became the first human were born of the same parents.
Scott wants her grandchildren to grow up around taro like she did. She says it will help them learn who they are, where they come from and grow up proud to be Hawaiian.
It's also important to her that her grandchildren are able to fish for crabs and fish in the streams and ocean like their ancestors. But she says the low water flow means the fish aren't plentiful.
"There goes our culture. How are we going to teach our children how to fish if the fish aren't there?" Scott said.
Other Native Hawaiians who own land along the 19 streams awaiting the water commission's decision also want to fish.
"Our clients are unable to engage in what was traditionally and customarily done in that area," said Moses Haia, another attorney with the Native Hawaiian corporation. "It's what makes them who they are."
Benjamin, the HC&S general manager, said water commission staff have indicated that the streams have healthy populations and no species is listed as endangered.
He said restoring water to the streams would help fish populations recover, but he urged people to weigh this against the loss of 800 HC&S jobs paying an average of $50,000 per year. He warned that a plantation's closure would reverberate through Maui, where HC&S is one of the largest employers.
"The adverse impact to the public of that would far outweigh any benefit that's going to occur as a result of letting water flow to the ocean," Benjamin said.