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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, April 8, 2010

Maui water ruling should favor HC&S

This is no longer the Hawai'i of old, but even in this 21st century economy one thing hasn't changed: Water is wealth.

That fact goes a long way toward explaining why the Nā Wai Eha ("the four streams") case, one of Maui's longstanding disputes over streamwater, still awaits final resolution.

It's been more than a year since staff recommendations on dividing that water were made to the state Commission on Water Resource Management. The recommendation was a compromise, allocating more water flow back to the streams while preserving allotments for Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co., Wailuku Water Co. and Maui County, the other contenders.

The decision, which the commission could issue any day, will be especially momentous for HC&S, the state's last sugar plantation. Environmental advocates, representing a handful of kalo farmers in the drought-plagued East Maui area, say diverted water flow has threatened stream ecosystems as well as the sustainability of kalo production.

These groups argue that HC&S hasn't been a careful conservator of water over its history and that the plantation uses more water than it needs. While denying these claims, HC&S gave in slightly. It's now asking to be given more water from two of the streams than the staff recommended, but accepting the recommendation for the other two streams.

The water commission should approve the HC&S proposal.

The company makes a persuasive case that it needs this water to ensure a crop yield sufficient to keep the business in the black and retain its work force. Even if Hawai'i wasn't in the depth of a crippling recession, the preservation of Maui's second largest private employer is an imperative that can't be easily dismissed. What other jobs on Maui would pay more than 800 people an average of $50,000 a year?

The company's threat of closure has been described by its critics as a scare tactic. It absolutely is. Maui residents, already reeling from the marginalization of Maui Land & Pineapple and the evaporation of hotel and construction jobs, should be rattled by the potential to lose $100 million yearly in direct spending by HC&S and its parent, Alexander & Baldwin Inc.

HC&S last saw a profit in 2006, and its executives are blunt in describing the ebbing patience for holding on to a subsidiary with high fixed costs and a low margin, even in the best of times.

But the death of sugar isn't something new and HC&S has been slow to transition toward new crops, and less thirsty ones. That's why yesterday's announcement of an alliance among HC&S, the Department of Energy and the Navy for biofuels production is so encouraging. Receiving adequate water from the commission should be seen as a commitment by HC&S to agriculture, and the federal dollars will help support its fulfillment.

Hawai'i's courts have ruled that water is a resource that must be managed for the public good.

Guarding stream flow is important, but so is preserving agriculture on a scale that can keep people working in the mill and in the fields, as they have for more than 100 years on Maui.

Prompt action by the water commission and lots of rain would help.