PAIA - A year after a state Commission on Water Resource Management ruling poured more than 12 million gallons of water per day back into eight East Maui streams, the panel is considering a proposal to restore water to 19 other East Maui waterways.
Taro farmers and plantation workers crowded the Paia Community Center on Thursday, each side pleading for enough water to survive. Chairwoman Laura Thielen said the commission is expected to return with its decision in December.
Without enough water available to fully satisfy all the demand, the commission will have to find a balance among traditional, agricultural and residential users that is unlikely to make everybody happy.
"Water issues are very tough issues," Thielen said. "There's no bad people here; there's only hard decisions to make."
The commission held a public fact-gathering meeting in Paia just a few hours after commissioners met in Wailuku to hear final arguments on a proposal to restore nearly half of diverted waters to Na Wai Eha streams in Central Maui. A decision on the Na Wai Eha case is pending.
Gov. Linda Lingle appeared personally to warn commissioners their decision "will have profound consequences for the future of Maui and our state as a whole."
Because of its importance to the state, Lingle said agriculture should be given the same level of water-use priority as domestic consumption, traditional Hawaiian uses and the protection of fish and wildlife.
"As governor of Hawaii, it is my responsibility to advocate for the decision that brings the most good to our community," she said. "I believe that decision must allow current users of these streams to continue to receive water in amounts that permit them to thrive - and that allow agriculture in our islands to survive."
Because Maui depends on stream water more than any other island in the state, returning water to streams "is done at the expense of those who depend on this water on a daily basis," she said.
Mayor Charmaine Tavares also said agriculture was "important and vital to our way of life." She urged commissioners to move forward in "incremental steps" when restoring water to the streams, so that the impacts of the changes could be monitored closely.
Taro farmers and their supporters described how the streams that fed their loi had dried up. When water does flow, it's not enough to provide adequate circulation, and the taro gets diseases, they said.
Kahu Charles Kauluwehi Maxwell Sr. said taro farming was more than a lifestyle; it was central to Hawaiian culture and spirituality.
"Taro is not just taro," he said. "It's kalo, the staff of life for the Hawaiian people."
Traditional uses had to come first, he said.
"We can share water, but not at the expense of the taro farmers," he said.
Native Hawaiian Legal Corp. attorney Alan Murakami, who represented taro farmers who had petitioned to have the water restored, said state law put the burden on Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. to prove the amount of water it takes from East Maui streams isn't hurting taro farmers.
"They have not been forced to do that," he said.
The state has a duty to protect traditional practices and Native Hawaiian water users, he added.
"Private commercial interests are secondary," he said.
"This is wrong," said testifier Charles Villalon.
HC&S should develop its own sources to irrigate its fields, not take water at the expense of traditional users in Keanae, he said.
"Pump the water out, invest in reservoirs," he said. "No take 'em from the motherland!"
But HC&S officials and workers said that without enough water to irrigate sugar cane fields, the company could close, eliminating about 800 jobs.
HC&S General Manager Chris Benjamin reiterated his warning that the plantation was teetering on the edge of failure, and that losing access to water could be the final push.
"We're going to lose $25 million this year," he said. "Our business is in jeopardy."
A drop in production caused by drought was directly responsible for the losses, he said.
"I'm very confident if we get back to normal weather patterns and retain access to water, we will be able to turn this business around and survive," he said.
The company knows that sugar will not be viable forever and is looking into alternative crops. But that will be possible only if the company stays in business.
"If the sugar industry goes down, we will never be able to convert to another crop down the road," he said.
A decision that puts HC&S out of business also could harm Maui's economic engine, tourism, said Carol Riemann, executive director of the Maui Hotel & Lodging Association.
Visitors are drawn to the Valley Isle because of its image as a "lush, green" destination, she said.
"Can you imagine flying into Kahului Airport over a field of dust?" she asked.
Other farmers also said they would be hurt if a large portion of the water were put back in streams.
Third-generation Upcountry produce farmer Kenneth Okamura noted that Kula was traditionally one of the two most agriculturally productive regions in the state, along with Waimea, Hawaii. But the area has struggled with drought "for generations," he said.
He urged commissioners to consider the economic impact of taking water away from agriculture.
"We cannot farm with an inconsistent water supply," he said.
Testifier Roland Perreira noted that a generation ago there was more sugar cane being grown but there was still enough water in East Maui streams for taro farmers. Today the plantation is smaller, but the streams are dry.
"Why? The state keeps developing more and more and more," he said. "We have to stop and fix this thing."
Development was the real issue, he said.
"It's not farmer against farmer; it's all of us together," he said.
* Ilima Loomis can be reached at email@example.com.