DHHL water plan to guide decisions on policy, rights

PAUKUKALO – For the first time since its inception 90 years ago, the state Department of Hawaiian Homelands is developing a policy plan that solely addresses its water kuleana rights and responsibilities.

“Water is becoming the topic of conversation across the state,” said DHHL planner Kaleo Manuel, who helped facilitate a public hearing Thursday night on Maui. “Up to this point, water has always been a part of the discussion, but it hasn’t been a focus.”

Over the last two months, the department has conducted a series of nine community meetings statewide to gather manao from homelands beneficiaries. Planners from the department are hoping to develop a policy that will guide the department and the Hawaiian Homes Commission’s decision-making over the next three to six years, not only about the availability of water but also how to provide water to homesteads.

The department, which has responsibilities to develop water sources, manage water systems, plan for future use and advocate for water rights, hopes to have a water policy plan approved by the Hawaiian Homes Commission by June, Manuel said.

The diversion of water from Central Maui streams for private, commercial purposes has been a bone of contention for homesteaders for decades and was brought up by residents who attended Thursday’s meeting. Native Hawaiian groups like Hui o Na Wai Eha and environmentalist groups like Maui Tomorrow have fought for the return of water to all four waterways in Waihee, Waiehu, Iao and Waikapu but, to date, water has been restored only in Waiehu and Waihee streams. Iao and Waikapu streams still have the majority of their water diverted by private entities including Wailuku Water Co. and Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co.

“In ancient Hawaii, water was not privately owned as property. It was held in trust for all the people; people had rights to water,” said Jonathan Likeke Scheuer, a water resource specialist hired by DHHL as a consultant to the water policy plan.

But those appointed to protect those water rights – the department and state Commission on Water Resource Management – have not always asserted their authority in the past, though one commissioner at the meeting Thursday said that things have been changing.

“There’s a very different commission than there has been, and it’s already been acting in very different ways, with respect and aloha for the public trust and all of the constitutional, protected rights (of the Hawaiian people),” said Jonathan Starr of Maui, who was appointed to the state commission by the governor last year. “One thing that has been a problem in the past is there has not been any policy in place or framework for saying, ‘This is what needs to be reserved,’ so what is happening here in this room tonight is something I feel very, very strongly is important if we’re going to have adequate water in the future for Hawaiian Homes.”

The commission had scheduled a public hearing in Central Maui in August for petitioners who wished to claim appurtenant water rights, or those attached to parcels of lands that used water from Na Wai Eha to farm traditional staples such as kalo or sweet potato, at the time of the Great Mahele in 1848. The meeting was postponed for undisclosed reasons and has yet to be rescheduled, Starr said.

The effort to restore water to Na Wai Eha, or the four great waters in Central Maui, has dragged on for many years already, and with no timeline for the water commission to take action, residents suggested the department take a more aggressive approach when asserting its water rights.

Making sure there is water for all homesteads before allowing private companies to divert water, assisting in managing watershed reserves and returning stream flow were just some of the suggestions listed by residents Thursday.

It can take years to develop a homestead lot, and much of the difficulty stems from securing water access, Scheuer said. Thousands of Native Hawaiians are on the waiting list – some of them have been waiting for decades – to get on a homestead.

“You can’t develop a homestead without water; you need water to make the land productive,” Scheuer said. “Alone, a water policy won’t do it. You need the policy in place as well as physical infrastructure.”

Scheuer said that despite the passage of the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act in 1920 that set aside 200,000 acres of ceded lands for Native Hawaiian homesteads, the state has never fully funded DHHL. After a five-year legal battle brought by the Native Hawaiian Legal Corp., the Hawaii Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the state violated the Hawaii Constitution by not providing adequate funding for the department.

“The department has always been limited in resources, we haven’t had the funding to focus on water or do things on a larger scale. With this plan, we’re hoping to focus on making better decisions when it comes to water, even with limited resources,” Manuel said.

The department is still waiting to receive its full funding.

The water policy plan is at least a step in the right direction in developing a way “with teeth” for the department to assert its rights and responsibilities to water, state officials said.

“Water is everywhere around us; it influences our decisions; it’s in the pipes, you use it to drink, take a shower, feed your animals, grow food,” Manuel said. “As Hawaiians, we understand this perspective; it’s not just about developing water up mauka.”

For more information or to submit comments, contact Manuel at (808) 620-9485 or kaleo.l.manuel@hawaii.gov.

* Eileen Chao can be reached at echao@mauinews.com.