IAO VALLEY STATE PARK - Nearly 100 marchers happily trekked three miles from the headwaters of Iao Stream to a Wailuku street party Friday evening to heighten awareness and rally support for a case that could decide the fate of Central Maui's four streams.
The nonprofit organization Hui o Na Wai Eha put together the "mauka to makai riverwalk" in anticipation of an Oct. 15 contested hearing before the state Commission on Water Resource Management.
The seven-member commission will hear oral arguments for the case at 9 a.m. at Iao Congregational Church. The commission is expected to issue its decision a couple months later, said lead attorney for the plaintiffs, Isaac Moriwake of Earthjustice.
The Maui News / CHRIS HAMILTON photo
Members of Hui o Na Wai Eha gathered Friday for a three-mile walk from Iao Valley to Wailuku to protest water diversion and to draw attention to an upcoming hearing on a bid to return water to the four major streams of Central Maui.
Environmentalists, Maui County, taro farmers and residents have fought for five years to restore water to Na Wai Eha, or The Four Waters, arguing that it would revive the natural environment and help fish flourish at the mouths of the Waihee River and Waiehu, Iao and Waikapu streams.
Most of the streams are nearly dry below the century-old grates and ditches used by Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. and Wailuku Water Distribution Co. to divert the water away from the streambeds.
"This is a community issue, so this is very important for all these people to be out here showing their support," Moriwake said. "This is what it's all about."
With a drought that's dragged on into its third year and a weakened Iao Stream inciting more people than ever to say, "Po' t'ing," Friday's march was "really very cool," said Kawika Duey, whose grandfather, John Duey, is president of Hui o Na Wai Eha.
John Duey owns 18 acres in Iao Valley and is a taro farmer.
"This is not a personal thing," John Duey said. "This is for everybody and everything."
However, officials from the two companies that control most of the water today said returning the water would cripple a litany of businesses that rely on the resource, particularly HC&S, which is Maui's already-struggling sugar and biofuel energy producer.
But the group once thought of as underdogs in this water fight, Hui o Na Wai Eha, now has a distinct advantage.
Nearly five months ago, the Commission on Water Resource Management's hearings officer and commissioner Dr. Lawrence Miike issued a "proposed decision" that would restore 34.5 million gallons of the 70 million gallons a day currently diverted from Na Wai Eha.
Moriwake said they believe Miike's fellow commissioners will side with him but also noted that they expect that whatever decision is made will wind up before the Intermediate Court of Appeals and perhaps the state Supreme Court.
HC&S and Wailuku Water are the defendants in the case, since the companies use the water to irrigate sugar cane fields and farms as well as provide water for golf courses and housing subdivisions.
HC&S's parent company, Alexander & Baldwin Inc., also is pursuing plans to build a 9 million gallon-a-day drinking water treatment plant in Wailuku that uses water from the Waihee River. Proponents said it would prevent the need to tap further into the Iao aquifer.
Opponents, such as Moriwake, said that, along with the Na Wai Eha case, the plant is further evidence of A&B "banking water" to promote future Central Maui housing and commercial developments. Someday HC&S, which is struggling financially and with crop yields, will abandon the cane fields that dominate the area's landscape - along with its role as one of the Valley Isle's major employers, critics claimed.
Miike's proposed decision would give A&B its 9 million gallons a day and continue to give HC&S up to 21.59 mgd; Wailuku Water Co. 2.02 mgd; and the county 12.2 mgd.
Co-counsel for Wailuku Water, Gil Keith-Agaran, who is also a state legislator, deferred questions Friday to the lead attorney, Paul Mancini of Kahului, or company President Avery Chumbley. Neither of the men was immediately available for comment Friday evening.
HC&S has stated that Miike's preliminary decision would further endanger Hawaii's last sugar cane producer. And Chumbley called Miike's approach uncompromising.
However, Moriwake said that HC&S has testified in a past hearing that it loses as much as 12 mgd due to a leaky reservoir and outdated ditches. The company also has access to 20 mgd from a well but refuses to cut into revenues with the costs associated with pumping so much water out of the ground, he said.
The community group Maui Tomorrow and the state Office of Hawaiian Affairs also support Hui o Na Wai Eha's position.
The U.S. Geological Survey determined that HC&S, the Maui County Department of Water Supply and Wailuku Water Co. combine to divert nearly 100 percent of the base-flow of 60 mgd from all four streams before it reaches the ocean. Base flow does not include stormwater runoff.
* Chris Hamilton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.