Tour of East Maui Irrigation ditch system draws just 1 commissioner

Seven-member state panel will decide how much water to restore to taro farmers, residents after the closing of Maui’s sugar plantation

Water from the West Wailuaiki Stream flows through the Koolau Ditch on Wednesday in East Maui. - The Maui News / CHRIS SUGIDONO photo

A trip to the East Maui Irrigation ditch system and surrounding streams may influence the state Commission on Water Resource Management’s final decision over how much water to restore to local taro farmers and residents.

The seven-member commission had planned to visit the Koolau and Haiku ditches as well as about a dozen streams Wednesday as part of a process to determine in-stream flow standards for water formerly used by Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. But only one commissioner, Keith Kawaoka, a representative of the state Department of Health, made the trip.

Others on the excursion included officials from Maui County, the Maui Tomorrow Foundation and EMI’s parent company, Alexander & Baldwin. Commissioners had planned to conduct the site visit alone in October, but Maui Tomorrow objected to its exclusion so the visit was rescheduled.

A hydrologist from the state Department of Land and Natural Resources answered questions and guided the tour. According to a written order published by the commission, the trip was a “silent viewing,” and parties were not allowed to speak to Kawaoka.

The commission has given no set date for a final decision.

A state Department of Land and Natural Resources hydrologist, who declined to be identified, points out parts of the Koolau Ditch to state Commission on Water Resource Management member Keith Kawaoka on Wednesday in East Maui. - The Maui News / CHRIS SUGIDONO photo

“We’re a little disappointed there’s only one commissioner, but he’s asking good questions so he seems genuinely interested,” said Lucienne de Naie, president of Maui Tomorrow, at a rest stop off Hana Highway.

The group began in the morning at Honomanu Stream off the highway and traveled farther toward Hana town before stopping at Makapipi Stream. From there, they traveled back toward Central Maui, making several stops along the Koolau Ditch, and eventually parked at the Wailua Valley overlook and state wayside to view the Wailua auwai (irrigation ditches) and loi (taro patches).

The trip finished with the Hanehoi and Honopou streams at the Haiku Ditch.

Streambeds were full during the visit due to recent rainy weather. Many locations were locked and inaccessible to the public, and some were difficult to reach from the highway.

Kawaoka had trouble seeing some intakes in streams due to the high water level, but he took photos. The hydrologist, who declined to be identified, pointed out several diversions that are used to catch the water.

Opponents of Alexander & Baldwin have questioned the maintenance of its East Maui Irrigation Co. ditch system, which includes the Koolau Ditch (pictured). The EMI ditch system was originally constructed in phases from the 1870s to 1923. EMI is a subsidiary of A&B. - The Maui News / CHRIS SUGIDONO photo

Maui Tomorrow Executive Director Albert Perez said he appreciated the opportunity to take the tour, but he was concerned about how the wet conditions would appear to the commission. He said he did not believe the surging streams were an accurate representation of normal conditions.

“The water is so high that we’re not really seeing any dry streams,” Perez said. “When it’s diverted during normal weather, the stream is dry, but now where there’s so much water it overtops the diversion.

“It is what it is, but at least they get to come out here and see some of the diversion structures, which are really engineered to take as much water as they can.”

Rick Volner Jr., A&B’s general manager for diversified agriculture, also joined the group and said he was happy the commission got to see the ditch system firsthand. He believed Wednesday was a “normal rainy season day out in East Maui.”

“The stream flow you see is representative of a normal winter, fall or spring day,” he said. “Obviously, in the summer months when it’s a lot drier and there hasn’t been rainfall, there’s going to be less stream flow, but less diversion of water as well.”

Officials from Alexander & Baldwin, Maui County, the Maui Tomorrow Foundation, a state Commission on Water Resource Management member and a state hydrologist gather near Kopiliula Stream on Wednesday in East Maui. - The Maui News / CHRIS SUGIDONO photo

During the hike up to one of the streams, the hydrologist cautioned the group to step one at a time on an older trestle above a ditch system. That caused Perez to wonder how well EMI is maintaining its system.

“That’s part of our concerns because what if A&B was to say ‘No, we rather not,’ “ he said. “It’s bad public policy to rely on a corporation to handle the water supply.”

De Naie said watershed partnerships have done a “great job” maintaining the streams and environment, but A&B has not. She said she believed it has been an overlooked topic or “elephant in the room that nobody is talking about.”

“The system is overrun with alien plants, and there’s no plan to have a remedy for that,” she said. “These are the kinds of things we think affect the long-term productivity of the watershed. We don’t want to be fighting over less and less water 50 years from now.”

Volner said the company has been repairing and maintaining the system for well over 140 years to provide water to the central valley for sugar cane production and drinking water for Upcountry residents. He said structures, roads and paths are not meant for hiking — only repairs and maintenance.

Twenty-four streams, including Kopiliula Stream (pictured), are within the contested case. - The Maui News / CHRIS SUGIDONO photo

“East Maui Irrigation personnel do a tremendous job,” he said. “They work under some very, very difficult conditions. This is very rugged country and obviously the weather complicates things as well.”

The EMI ditch system was originally constructed in phases from the 1870s to 1923, according to documents filed with the commission. The system’s delivery capacity is 450 million gallons per day, but the long-term average is 165 million gallons daily.

Since 1999, water flow has “decreased significantly,” and from 2004 to 2013 the company averaged only 126 million gallons per day.

The contested case’s hearings officer, Lawrence Miike, recommended to the commission in August to restore 26.5 million gallons a day to 12 streams. Na Moku Aupuni o Ko’olau, a community of taro farmers, fishermen, hunters and traditional practitioners represented by the Native Hawaiian Legal Corp., has rejected the recommendation and requested more.

The group argues that the EMI diversions impact stream life, taro growers and Native Hawaiian cultural practices and traditions.

Water flows from the Kopiliula Stream through the Koolau Ditch beneath Hana Highway on Wednesday. - The Maui News / CHRIS SUGIDONO photo

Miike identified four ways to reduce the amount of water collected and transported by the ditch system: closing or reducing the diversion intake gate openings; partially or completely opening the sluice gates; closing radial gates; and partially or completely closing the gates on the main control points on the ditches themselves.

Volner maintained that the water is necessary for A&B’s post-sugar diversified agricultural program. He said farmers have expressed interested in growing papayas, bananas, cabbage, lettuce, onions and other food crops that require more water and greater access to it.

“With sugar cane, to be honest, we were a little spoiled,” he said. “You could go long periods of time without water. It responded during drought conditions and slowed down, but it didn’t die. It was a long-term crop of two years so you could go periods of time without water and not materially affect your yields or the business model.

“With a lot of the other crops . . . you really need the ability to water the crops on the daily or at least every other day, and you really need some assurance that you’re going to have access to that water before you plant a crop.”

Water needs will depend on the location of the farm, Volner said. Wetter locations may get up to 65 inches of rainfall, while the leeward side may only get 10 to 15 inches.

“Different crops are more or less thirsty,” Volner said. “We tried to match the crops we felt will work best in different soil types.”

A&B has signed nonbinding letters of intent with “a number of local farmers” and is in active lease negotiations with a handful that could result in a few thousand acres being repurposed “pretty quickly,” Volner said. One farmer has cleared land and started planting primarily sweet potatoes and other tuber crops.

The company also is talking to a potential farmer “very interested” in bio-energy production on about 12,000 acres. Volner wouldn’t identify the prospective lessee because of a nondisclosure agreement.

“I really think once this (interim in-stream flow standards) decision is made, that will ultimately be the key that allows people to move forward,” he said. “If the water commission issues a decision in the next month or two, I would expect there to be a lot of activity in our lands in 2018 — assuming there’s sufficient water available.”

Aside from food crops, the company is looking to expand its Kulolio Ranch in Hamakuapoko to nearly 5,000 acres within the next year, Volner said. The ranch has over 800 head of cattle and can contractually take in as many as 3,250 animals from Maui Cattle Co., a partnership of six ranches.

The ranch receives cattle weighing 500 to 700 pounds and “finishes” them up to 1,400 pounds before sending them to market, Volner said.

De Naie acknowledged the growing ranch and efforts by A&B, but she said the company could do better. In March, her foundation submitted studies by the U.S. Department of Agriculture on how to improve soil and cut water use in half.

“Our job is to push for the best future possible,” she said. “We’re Maui Tomorrow. We’re not Maui today or yesterday or whatever. It’s about how can we go forward and do better.”

The Commission on Water Resource Management consists of seven members, five of whom are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate. The remaining two are the chairperson of the state Board of Land and Natural Resources, Suzanne Case, who serves as commission chairperson, and the director of the state Department of Health, Virginia Pressler.

Kawaoka, who serves as deputy director of the Health Department’s environmental health administration, has been designated to serve on the commission on Pressler’s behalf, commission officials said. The other commissioners are William Balfour Jr., Kamana Beamer, Michael Buck, Neil Hannahs and Paul Meyer.

Meyer, former deputy director of the county Department of Water Supply, has recused himself from the case, commission officials said.

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


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)

Starting at $4.62/week.

Subscribe Today