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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, March 14, 2010

The other side of the Maui water argument

By Pam Bunn

As representatives of communities seeking to restore streamflows in the East Maui and Nā Wai 'Eha (Central Maui) water cases, we agree that the public should "understand the facts about Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar and the pending water decisions."

Unfortunately, Christopher Benjamin's March 7 commentary does not promote such understanding. Instead, it represents the latest in a barrage of half-truths and distortions by which Alexander & Baldwin obviously hopes to influence the state Water Commission's ongoing deliberations over the fate of dozens of Maui streams drained by HC&S.

Unable to demonstrate that it needs all of the water it diverts, A&B has pursued a divisive campaign to frame the Maui water cases as a choice between flowing streams and HC&S's 800 plantation jobs. That is a false choice; stream restoration is not an "either/or" proposition, but a balance.

If HC&S stopped its waste and resumed use of the nonpotable wells it used for most of its history, Maui could achieve substantial stream flows to provide for taro farming and other beneficial uses. The issue is whether A&B will continue to hold Maui's water future hostage or instead, as the law requires, the commission will protect public water resources for present and future generations.

Here are facts from the public record:

• HC&S takes far more water from Maui's streams than it needs.

HC&S's dilapidated infrastructure can lose tens of millions of gallons of water daily. HC&S doesn't document these losses, but in one example, estimated that lining its Wai'ale Reservoir in Central Maui would eliminate 6 to 8 million gallons per day of waste for about 10 cents per 1,000 gallons. By comparison, the county water department takes 7.1 million gallons per day from East Maui streams to serve users in Upcountry Maui and the Kula Agricultural Park, who pay between $1 and $2.90 per 1,000 gallons.

HC&S also over-waters its crops, according to the testimony of Ali Fares, an expert from the University of Hawai'i who specializes in calculating the water needs of crops. On its Central Maui fields, HC&S applies 30 percent more water than Fares' analysis found necessary. On the East Maui fields, the commission staff estimated even greater excess.

HC&S argues that these losses "return" to aquifers, but these are the aquifers under HC&S land, which HC&S then refuses to pump. Meanwhile, the U.S. Geological Survey documents that the Nā Wai 'Eha diversions deprive Maui's main drinking water aquifer of 12.3 million gallons per day of recharge.

• The law does not allow private commercial use to trump public and Native Hawaiian water rights.

Benjamin's opinion that "our constitution protects agriculture, just as it does traditional and customary Hawaiian rights" misinterprets the law. As the Hawai'i Supreme Court explained in its landmark Waiāhole decision, the protection of instream uses and Native Hawaiian rights are public trust purposes superior to "private commercial" diverters like HC&S and that diverters must use practical alternatives, like HC&S's nonpotable wells, before depriving communities of their only water source.

• The public subsidizes the HC&S plantation.

A&B highlights its designation of a portion of its plantation as "important agricultural lands" to prove its commitment to agriculture. It fails to mention, however, that this designation provides A&B with huge tax benefits, including credits covering the cost of lawyers and consultants. In addition, HC&S enjoys property tax exemptions, federal supports and, of course, all the public water HC&S takes, basically for free.

Meanwhile, Alexander & Baldwin seeks to build a plant to treat diverted Na Wai 'Eha water, half of which would be reserved for developments on its plantation lands, with the rest sold to the county. What a deal: A&B takes public water, so the public can buy it back.

And while HC&S says it is pursuing a future as a provider of renewable energy, an energy future that sacrifices native streams and violates our indigenous Hawaiian culture is neither renewable nor sustainable, and offends the public trust no less than the plantation past.

• Many taro growers are still without water.

Benjamin's allegation that the Water Commission accommodated all known taro growers is flat wrong. In Na Wai 'Eha, scores of witnesses testified under oath that they had insufficient water to grow taro, and nothing has changed.

In East Maui, the trickle that has been returned to eight of 27 streams is insufficient to satisfy the needs of current and future taro growers, not to mention the many other instream uses that require mauka-to-makai flow. Although the Water Commission required a total of 12 mgd in those eight streams, A&B has never satisfied that standard.

In sum, A&B has relentlessly tried to shift the focus from its squandering of public resources to its claim that an adverse ruling from the Water Commission will cause its demise.

As trustee of Hawai'i's water resources, the commission must base its decisions on facts and law, not plantation-era, bare-knuckled politics. The commission must now decide in both the Nā Wai 'Eha and East Maui cases how it will fulfill its legal obligation to protect the best interests of all of Maui's people.

Ho'i ka wai: Return the water!