Residents, activists, engineers clash over work to restore valley after flood
WAILUKU — Native Hawaiian activists confronted U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officials about Wailuku Water Co. permits to repair damage in Iao Valley from the Sept. 13 flood at a forum in Wailuku and in a separate action requested that the agency revoke the water company’s permit for emergency work in the Wailuku River.
About 50 people gathered Tuesday night at the Velma McWayne Santos Community Center for a forum on flood recovery efforts in Iao Valley. Representatives from the Army Corps, county Department of Public Works, Maui Civil Defense Agency and the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency were among those giving presentations and meeting face to face with the public at tables.
Shane McCoy, acting regulatory branch chief of the Honolulu District for the Army Corps, said that Wailuku Water Co. has not violated the Army Corps permit, which allowed for the removal of boulders and organic debris from Wailuku River to provide access to and unblock the company’s intakes.
“It’s not my understanding” that Wailuku Water Co. “changed what the stream was doing” after receiving the permit, McCoy told the crowd.
Residents and activists disagreed with McCoy and handed him a copy of a letter that was sent to the Army Corps. The letter, signed by former state House candidate Tiare Lawrence and Wailuku resident Lani Eckart Dodd and accompanied by photos of the work in the river, highlighted portions of Wailuku Water Co.’s permit that they say has been violated.
Opponents of Wailuku Water Co.’s work, who have staged protests in the riverbed to stop heavy equipment from operating, have argued that the company has realigned or significantly altered the river. Wailuku Water Co. only is authorized to perform “maintenance” on the intake and not to change the flow of the river that was significantly widened by the raging floodwaters.
“Major destruction to the stream banks occurred due to the severity of the flash flood of Sept. 13,” the letter to the Army Corps reads. “No monitor from the state Historic Preservation Division has been on site while these major alterations have been taking place over the last several weeks.
“As the authority over the nationwide permit process and all activities within the waters of the U.S., we are turning to you for oversight of this valuable public resource.”
In addition to revoking the company’s permit, the letter asks the Army Corps to require and oversee a permit for a comprehensive plan developed by engineers for the overall restoration of the river. The two residents are asking that pohaku, or stones, are returned to the river and that mauka-to-makai streamflow is restored to enhance the native aquatic life.
McCoy said that the agency “generally has a very narrow scope” for projects. He said Wailuku Water Co., to his knowledge, has not gone outside of its authorized footprint.
“What I’m saying is I can enforce the terms and conditions of the permit that was issued for the point-source discharge of fill materials on the waters of the U.S.,” he said. “The diversion of the stream depending on how they do it . . . is not something I can regulate.”
McCoy said that he has only seen a “very nominal temporary impact” from the company’s work. He said that the Army Corps has not received any other permits in the valley but is working with the county on some after-the-fact permits for work that has already begun or has been completed.
“We don’t just hand out permits,” he said. “You come in for an application, and we coordinate with agencies to figure out what the resource concerns are.”
McCoy added that he visited the site before Tuesday’s meeting and after seeing photos from the flood, he recognized that it appears very different with “a lot of material” being moved around. However, he said the agency’s permits do not have a condition for an on-site observer.
“There has to be some good faith clause, due to the fact that we don’t have the resources or manpower to be on every site while it’s being worked,” he said.
The permit issued to Wailuku Water Co. appears to create some of the confusion. On the one hand, the permit says Wailuku Water Co. is permitted “to restore the stream diversion to its pre-storm function and capacity.” The permit also says “this verification is not intended to authorize realignment or other significant alteration of the Wailuku River.”
Wailuku Water Co. President Avery Chumbley said Tuesday night that his company did not go beyond the authorization of the Army Corps or the state Commission on Water Resource Management emergency authorizations. He said some residents are “misinterpreting” the permit and making representations to officials without a factual basis.
He noted that the scope of Wailuku Water Co.’s work was roughly 400 to 500 feet around the diversion and a small area around the Iao/Waikapu trestle. He said the work is minuscule compared to the 10,000 acres of land the company owns in the riverbed.
“It was a very specific limited area, and these expressed community concerns are saying we’re impacting the entire river and that’s just not truthful,” Chumbley said. “Our footprint is much smaller than others. It’s just that we’re a private corporation, and I think that’s troublesome to people.”
Chumbley said the intake was installed in the 1900s and is legally registered and permitted under the state water code with the water commission. The diversion supplies water to more than 30 users, including the county Department of Water Supply.
“The activist groups are trying to mix up the issues,” he said. “Their belief is that we should not be diverting any water and unfortunately that’s not in the public’s interest. Wailuku Water Co. provides a service of infrastructure for delivering water — not by selling water. We’re delivering water by points in the stream down to the county and users.”
While some landowners have conducted emergency repairs to their parts of the riverbed, the company currently has the only permitted project. Chumbley said he went out of his way to go through the process and delayed work until the company received the permit.
“Because of the high scrutiny we’re under, we wanted to make sure we went through the process that gave us the authorization,” he said.
* Chris Sugidono can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.