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Controversial water bill moves on to Senate

Maui lawmakers divided in support of House Bill 1326

Maui County’s state lawmakers were divided over their support of House Bill 1326 as the controversial measure on revocable water permits crossed over to the Senate on Tuesday.

The bill passed on third reading Tuesday with 34 voting yes, five voting yes with reservations, nine voting no and three excused. The Maui County delegation was split — Reps. Troy Hashimoto, Kyle Yamashita and Justin Woodson in favor and Reps. Lynn DeCoite, Angus McKelvey and Tina Wildberger against.

The bill would allow revocable water permits to be extended while applications for water leases are pending. Water permit holders would be allowed up to 10 consecutive one-year holdovers, a major change over the bill’s originally proposed three consecutive one-year holdovers.

Permits can also be extended pending contested case hearings.

Opponents have said the bill would continue to steal water from East Maui residents and farmers — especially with the long-diverted streams on the brink of restoration. Supporters have said the bill is needed to ensure users like Mahi Pono and Upcountry farmers will continue to have access to water.

The bill would impact Mahi Pono, the new owners of 41,000 acres of former sugarcane land, as well as seven permit applicants on Hawaii island and four on Kauai.

Yamashita, who introduced the bill along with seven other lawmakers, said Tuesday that it costs East Maui Irrigation, a subsidiary of Alexander & Baldwin, about $2 million to operate the water system.

“If the County of Maui becomes responsible to run the system, it will cost more than $2 million dollars to operate EMI,” said Yamashita, who represents Upcountry. “This cost could affect all water user rates on Maui. Additionally, the county will need to go through the permitting and EIS process.”

Hashimoto, who represents Central Maui, said that “the bottom line is that I support agriculture statewide, and a time extension is needed for all users to obtain appropriate water permits.”

“Although there is one large user on Maui, the vast majority of entities impacted by this bill are very small businesses on Hawaii island and Kauai,” he said. “Most importantly, without this extension, 36,000 residents Upcountry would be put on immediate water restrictions because of their reliance on surface water.”

Hashimoto said he understood the community’s concerns, “but I believe we are finally close to having all entities go through the permitting process.”

Maui County Water Supply Director Jeff Pearson could not be reached to clarify Hashimoto’s comments after hours, but DeCoite said Upcountry residents shouldn’t be affected, because the bill applies to revocable permits, and the county water supply does not fall into that category.

“The county water supply that exists is still in effect with or without this agreement, and it does take care of the Upcountry residents,” said DeCoite, who represents East Maui, Molokai and Lanai.

DeCoite said she didn’t understand the need to holdover permits for so long if the review process is almost done. Mahi Pono has said it is two months away from finishing a draft environmental impact statement.

The company has also said in testimony to the Legislature that all of its farm plans “are contingent on a commitment of water” and that HB 1326 was needed to ensure a continuous source of water.

“Start with your existing water in your own central plans, in your land,” DeCoite said. “And we’ll start to see as you progress forward that if you need more water on your farm plan, then let’s go ahead and try and help you.”

She added that “commitment is one thing, but I think actions speak louder than words.”

“I’m hoping for the best for Mahi Pono,” she said. “I hope to see they will continue along this path, but we’re going to have to wait and see, and I just like make sure East Maui will continue to have (streams) flowing in that direction for their taro, for all their farms, for their ecosystem.”

Wildberger said that A&B and the Kauai Island Utility Cooperative’s corporate interests “could have been pulled out and decided separately from the Big Island small farmers, who need permits to continue their operations.”

“Instead, Big Island farmers were held hostage for the continued battle to restore Maui and Kauai streams,” Wildberger said. “I felt it was important to support the countless residents of East Maui who are forced to live with dry stream beds, who have been asking for their fair share of water for decades.”

Wildberger said the Legislature has continued to grant A&B water diversions “with no accountability” despite a ruling that invalidated the permits three years ago.

“My message to the Legislature is: the era of puritanical plantation patriarchy is over, or at least, it should be,” she said.

McKelvey could not be reached for comment on Tuesday.

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.