Testifiers question HC&S need, request for East Maui water

Others concerned about the possible loss of water to Upcountry

Alice Lee, a former County Council member, expressed the views of some Upcountry residents, farmers and ranchers, who were concerned about their water supply and rates if Alexander & Baldwin’s request for a lease for water from East Maui streams was not approved. More than 130 people attended the public meeting at the Maui Electric Co. conference room to give testimony on A&B’s application to the state Board of Land and Natural Resources. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

KAHULUI — Demands for Alexander & Baldwin to be more transparent and to disclose the impacts of its proposed 30-year lease for water from East Maui streams were heard Wednesday evening at a crowded Maui Electric Co. community meeting room.

The company’s subsidiary, Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co., says it needs about 115 million gallons of water per day for future diversified agriculture on about 30,000 acres of old sugar fields, according to an environmental impact statement preparation notice published Feb. 8. The sugar plantation shut down in December, and its website said that the plantation used 200 mgd for sugar production.

The lease also would allow HC&S to continue to supply Upcountry residents with water through its ditch, tunnel and siphon system that brings water from East Maui to Upcountry and Central Maui.

More than 130 people attended the public scoping meeting to give oral testimony on A&B’s application to the state Board of Land and Natural Resources. Over 30 people spoke at the meeting, with a slight bent of testifiers opposing the lease.

Another meeting will be held from 5 to 7 p.m. today at the Haiku Community Center. Some testifiers asked that a hearing be held closer to East Maui in Nahiku or Hana to reduce the hardship of residents from those areas.

Maui resident Michael Pasco asks that state officials research the impacts of the East Maui Irrigation aqueduct system on marine life and surrounding native wildlife. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Wilson Okamoto Corp., A&B’s consultant, made a brief presentation on its proposal. There were no A&B officials on hand at the meeting “A&B does not have clear plans and the land is being sold, so what assurance do we have that the water is going to be used?” Maui Tomorrow Executive Director Albert Perez said.

Perez was referring to A&B’s sale of 300 acres of former sugar fields at the edge of Paia for $10 million to a Northern California-based company in December.

Many testifiers said there should be a review of the history of A&B’s diversions, which go back more than an a century, and their impacts over the years. Those opposed to the diversions have said that the streams that once flowed from the mountain to ocean are dry or flow intermittently and have affected steam life, taro farming and other Native Hawaiian practices.

“I need to know if A&B truly has Maui at heart, not taking all that you can,” said Nalani Kaminau, a Native Hawaiian. “I would love A&B to be transparent for whatever mass farming they are getting into.”

Testifiers had questions about the condition of the East Maui Irrigation Co. aqueduct system, which some say is damaged and leaking tens of thousands of gallons of water. Greater oversight of EMI, a subsidiary of A&B, also was sought.

Maui Cattle Co. President Alex Franco expresses concern about droughts and the need for East Maui water to keep Central Maui farmers and ranchers afloat. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

“I want to make sure the EIS looks at the management of our water resource,” said Michael Pasco. “Seeing 20 percent or so leakage, it clearly shows that they are not treating it like the valuable resource it is.”

Attendees also called for stream flow data to be published from each of the streams A&B plans to divert as part of the lease for use of water on state land. A&B has historically diverted 37 of the 39 identified streams in Nahiku, Keanae and Huelo but is in the process of abandoning five streams and is no longer diverting another waterway.

Upcountry residents, farmers and ranchers had their own concerns about water supply and rates if the lease were not approved. All of them said they rely on the water and do not believe the county has the ability to run EMI’s system or to meet the area’s water needs.

“I believe everybody needs water,” said Upcountry rancher Brendan Balthazar, who is a board member of the Maui County Farm Bureau and Cattlemen’s Association. “I depend on that water. So do my animals and so does my lifestyle.”

Balthazar asked how much water taro farmers needed to restore their loi or patches and whether the rest could be diverted for other uses. He was opposed to using diverted water for future development and said that HC&S land should remain in agriculture.

He was not confident that the county could manage the ditch system.

“The county has no way in hell taking care of that ditch,” he said. “They don’t have the resources or the funding.”

County Water Supply Director Dave Taylor said after the meeting that Upcountry residents depend on the system, but that the county could takeover the EMI ditch system if needed.

“It’s not impossible,” Taylor said. “It’s still human beings and contractors and equipment, and they could all work for us. There’s the business plan about money, and there’s rules of government procedures. It can be done — it wouldn’t be easy and it wouldn’t be inexpensive, but it can be done.”

The county would need a new substantial revenue stream in order to take over the system, he said. The Upcountry water system, the second largest in the county, serves more than 35,000 people.

The length of the 30-year lease left some at the meeting uneasy; they believed a shorter term was better. Since 1986, the state has issued one-year revokable permits to A&B for the Nahiku, Keanae, Honomanu and Huelo watershed, though state courts have ruled that process unconstitutional.

There also were calls for greater access to state lands so the public could hold the company accountable.

Alice Lee, president of advocacy group Go Maui Inc., wondered if water rates would increase for Upcountry residents if the lease was not approved. She asked how the county would fill the need for water and if the restoration of East Maui streams would cause issues such as flooding.

“What will happen to A&B land with or without stream diversion?” Lee asked. “If surface plains don’t get water, will it cause serious erosion problems, dust storms, fire hazards or other problems?”

* Chris Sugidono can be reached at csugidono@mauinews.com.

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