HC&S’ need for E. Maui stream water weighed

Amount necessary for diversified agriculture remains unanswered

Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. still needs around 115 million gallons of water per day for its plans to transform most of its 36,000 acres formerly used for sugar cane into diversified agriculture.

“To attract new farmers and new agricultural operations to Central Maui, there needs to be irrigation water. No farmer will risk making the investment in new agricultural operations without knowing suitable water is available to cultivate their crops,” said Darren Pai, a spokesman for HC&S parent company Alexander & Baldwin.

At full implementation of the company’s diversified agricultural plan, which is about 27,000 acres, A&B estimates that approximately 115 million gallons of water per day would be needed, Pai said. He did not say how much water the plantation used for sugar cultivation, but HC&S’ website said that 200 million gallons were used per day.

According to HC&S documents, water is still needed to irrigate fields that could be used for pastures; orchard, beverage and bio-energy crops; other diversified agriculture; and an agricultural park.

Critics of HC&S water diversions say that the former plantation has not provided sufficient plans to substantiate its claims on available water and that the company has not explored other ways to reduce its water intake.

How much water the former plantation needs and the amount of water it should divert to East Maui taro farmers were among issues debated this week when the state Commission on Water Resource Management reopened contested case proceedings to determine stream flows for 27 East Maui diverted streams.

The contested case was reopened after HC&S announced in January 2016 that it would shut down sugar operations. The plantation closed in December.

The East Maui streams under review by the commission are among more than two dozen that have been diverted through a ditch-tunnel-siphon system built in the 1870s for sugar operations in Upcountry and Central Maui. East Maui Irrigation, a subsidiary of A&B, operates the system that also delivers water to the county’s Department of Water Supply. It treats the surface water and provides it to Upcountry farmers and residents.

East Maui taro farmers and environmentalists have long argued that the plantation’s stream diversions have dried up their taro fields and endangered cultural practices. For more than a decade, they’ve fought for more water to be returned to the streams.

The oral hearings in the contested case ended Thursday, a day earlier than expected, at the University of Hawaii Maui College. According to the state Commission on Water Resource Management, hearing transcripts should be ready in a few weeks.

But it’s still a long way before the commission will reach a decision because all of those involved in the case have four weeks to submit their proposed findings of fact, conclusions of law and decisions and order. Then they have one week after that to submit objections. Only then will hearings officer Lawrence Miike prepare his recommendations to the commission.

Parties involved in the contested case are: HC&S, the Department of Water Supply, Maui Tomorrow Foundation and Native Hawaiian Legal Corp., which is representing Na Moku Aupuni O Ko’olau Hui. (That group includes East Maui farming families.) Individuals Lurlyn Scott and Sanford Kekahuna also are parties in the case.

Last year, following an initial contested case hearing, Miike called for the restoration of 18 million gallons a day of water to 10 streams. But the commission never formally adopted the recommendation because it reopened the contested case following the announced sugar plantation closure.

The parties agreed to follow Miike’s recommendation while they await a new recommendation.

In April, A&B said that is has fully restored water to three of eight streams in East Maui at Wailuanui, but the company reported there were logistical, permitting and other conditions for the other streams.

Regarding the five other streams, Pai said Friday: “We have done as much as we physically can to restore water back into the taro streams pending permits and approvals from county, state and federal agencies.”

The announcement of the stream restorations came last year when state lawmakers were fiercely debating a bill to allow A&B to continue to divert water from East Maui streams until the outcome of its application for a long-term state lease, originally filed in 2001, was decided by the state Board of Land and Natural Resources.

Eventually a bill was passed allowing A&B to continue to divert water from the watershed for at least three years under current lease terms.

Maui Tomorrow Executive Director Albert Perez, who gave a presentation during this week’s hearings, said that HC&S presented sketches of the types of agriculture it hopes to have on its former cane lands, but he noted it is speculative.

It “doesn’t have any timeline or steps on how they are going to get there,” he said.

He added that a map of anticipated diversified agricultural uses keeps changing.

Perez pointed to Maui Tomorrow’s report “Malama ‘Aina: A Conversation About Maui’s Farming Future,” which he sent to A&B’s board members. It outlined various farming methods and types that use less water.

“They (A&B) are talking about some of the things (in the report),” he said. “But it all appears to be focused on keeping water.”

Pai said that the implementation of diversified agriculture “will happen over a period of time and, as we pointed out in the hearings, we expect that the plan will evolve and change over the years.”

“The end goal remains the same — to put as much of the former sugar lands into new diversified agricultural operations,” he said.

A message and email to Native Hawaiian Legal Corp. seeking comment were not immediately returned Friday.

But, in one of its filings in the reopened contested case, the group’s attorneys said: “HC&S has presented a ‘vision,’ not evidence in support of its claimed 116 mgd total irrigation needs to keep its 30,000 acres of former sugar cane lands in agriculture.”

The Native Hawaii Legal Corp. pointed to a statement from HC&S General Manager Rick Volner Jr. in which he admitted that the plantation’s challenge to “identify an economically viable plan to maintain the majority of HC&S lands in an alternative agricultural use,” and that the plan “will evolve over time.”

Maui County officials declined comment on the hearing Friday.

The county has said that it is concerned that if East Maui Irrigation were to shut down, that “would have potentially devastating impacts” on the county’s ability to provide water to 35,000 Upcountry customers from East Maui ditches maintained by EMI.

The county “lacks the financial capacity or the expertise necessary to take over, maintain or operate the EMI system should they cease operations,” the county wrote in a filing.

County officials added that there have been preliminary talks between the county and HC&S to have the county eventually take over portions of HC&S land for agricultural parks.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.

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