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In-stream flow standards set for four West Maui streams

Water panel acts after decades of plantation diversion

KAHULUI — A state panel voted Tuesday to set new flow levels for four West Maui streams — this time without the decadeslong legal battles that have characterized the fight over East Maui streams.

About 40 testifiers spoke before the Commission on Water Resource Management Tuesday on adjusting in-stream flow standards for Ukumehame, Olowalu, Launiupoko and Kauaula streams after decades of plantation diversions. While small farmers in West Maui worried about losing water with the changes, kuleana landowners pointed out that their crops have struggled without water for much longer.

“For us as kuleana landowners and taro farmers up there, about time that there was some justice,” Kauaula Valley resident Ke’eaumoku Kapu said. “It’s not kuleana versus the new tenants. The most important thing about the decision is the fauna, the species, the rights and now the whole ecosystem of these valleys. . . . We have a chance to fix things that we never had a chance before.”

Since at least the 1930s, the streams had been diverted as part of sugar cane plantation irrigation systems, according to a commission staff report. After the state passed the Hawaii Water Code in 1987, Pioneer Mill registered the stream diversions that were adopted as status quo. After the mill closed down, various companies purchased Pioneer Mill lands and took over operation of the diversions and irrigation systems.

The commission decided to review the stream levels after receiving multiple complaints from residents who said the diversions were restricting traditional practices.

Just about every week, Charles Palakiko has to call West Maui Land Co. to beg for more water. Palakiko farms a half-acre of kalo on 3 acres in Kauaula Valley. Because the water levels fluctuate so much, he keeps losing plants and is unable to grow more kalo on his property.

“We had patches of taro growing that we had to throw away because of the water situation and how low it’s been,” Palakiko said. “They use up millions of gallons . . . and when they use up what they have, they taking the little bit that we have that we raising our kalo. . . . We should have rights before all of that — their grass, their lawns, the driveways. All of it so green.”

U’ilani Kapu and her family grow kalo, strawberries, carrots and other crops on their kuleana property in Kauaula Valley. Their water is pumped uphill from the hydropower plant, “so we suffer the most in that valley, only because if the water flow is low, we don’t get it pumped up fast enough to us.” The farm will sometimes go without water for two or three days.

“For us as kuleana landowners, we live day by day,” she said. “We don’t grumble as much because we know how to sustain ourselves with the rainfall that we have — very little in Lahaina — but we get it because we are bringing back the natural habitats of our area’s trees, bird life, fish life. . . . We need our stream flows.”

But Dave Minami, who represented the Launiupoko and Olowalu Irrigation companies, believed there would be “unintended consequences” if new stream flow standards were set. Stream flows were actually lower than reported by commission staff, and if they were changed, Launiupoko Irrigation would likely have to stop operating the hydropower plant, “a great renewable energy source,” he said. Customers and other valley users like Kamehameha Schools would not get any surface water, “since they take water from the system after the diversion,” Minami said.

Several residents also said they bought agricultural property in West Maui believing they would have water for their crops.

Shawneen Schweitzer said her family has an orchard of mostly citrus trees on 3 acres in Launiupoko. Half of her family’s property is located on a side of a ravine that has no access to potable water. If they lost their water, “we would lose that farm,” she said.

“Granted, there’s lots of swimming pools and lots of beautiful landscaping,” Schweitzer said. “But there’s lots of small-family farmers, and I’m proud to be one of those family farmers, and I need that potable water. I’d be willing to take a drastic cut . . . so that kuleana families can have water. There needs to be a balance.”

Native Hawaiian testifiers countered that they’d been facing the same struggles of giving up their water and watching their crops suffer for hundreds of years.

After about three and a half hours of testimony, the commission voted to adopt the new interim in-stream flow standards, which will be as follows, according to the staff report:

≤ 2.9 million gallons per day for Ukumehame Stream (below its main diversion at 220 feet above sea level), with at least 130,000 gallons per day supplied for taro farmers. This still allots landowner Uka LLC 45,000 gallons per day for agricultural water and 4,000 gallons for landscaping at least 50 percent of the time with surface water.

≤ 2.33 mgd for Olowalu Stream (below its 130-foot-elevation abandoned U.S. Geological Survey gauging station). Olowalu Water could still meet its 196,000 per day agricultural water demand and its 141,000 gallons per day landscaping demand at least half of the time.

≤ 3.36 mgd (below its main diversion at 1,540 feet) and 4.1 mgd (below kuleana users at 270 feet) for Kauaula Stream.

≤ Launiupoko Stream flow was proposed to stay the same because it rarely meets the ocean. But, at the request of testifiers, the commission agreed to do controlled releases to test the impact on the local environment.

The commission also agreed to develop a plan with the community on enforcement, as well as meet with the county to discuss what the changes could mean for planning and zoning. After a year, commission staff will assess the impacts of the new stream flows.

On Tuesday, the commission also deferred decisions on imposing a fine against Olowalu Elua Associates for constructing a stream diversion works and diverting water without a permit, as well as against the Bock Family Revocable Trust for altering East Kuiaha Stream without a permit.

Commission member Paul Meyer said the items will be heard at the commission’s next meeting on April 17, which will likely take place in Kona.

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

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