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Keep water flowing, East Mauians tell Senate panel

Senators hold meeting on bills that affect Mahi Pono

Big Island’s Sen. Kaialii Kahele, who serves as chairman of the Senate Water and Land Committee, facilitates an informal meeting to hear from East Maui residents on water issues Tuesday night at Haiku Community Center. The Maui News / KEHAULANI CERIZO photo

HAIKU — Impassioned pleas to allow East Maui’s streams to heal after decades of diversions to irrigate sugar cane fields filled Haiku Community Center on Tuesday night during an informal meeting with state senators considering a contentious water rights measure.

At issue was HB 1326, which would extend revocable water permits until the pending application for a water lease is completed. The bill, which is moving through the state House, applies to Mahi Pono and its 41,000 acres of Maui farmland recently acquired from Alexander & Baldwin, as well as seven permit applicants on the Big Island and four on Kauai.

On Wednesday, the powerful House Finance Committee passed the measure with amendments, with Maui County Reps. Kyle Yamashita and Troy Hashimoto voting in favor and Rep. Tina Wildberger voting against.

The measure needs to pass the full House by next week in order to cross over to the Senate for consideration.

Tuesday’s meeting was especially raw in light of last year’s landmark decision to restore 17 East Maui streams to full or near-full capacity. In June, the state water commission established interim stream flow standards to protect area farming, cultural practices and habitat. It was a hard fought, nearly two decades-long battle that pitted Native Hawaiian taro farmers and practitioners against A&B and its stream diversions for agricultural ventures.

“We just got back the water and now they want to take it away,” said testifier Moke Bergau of Nahiku. “It’s a hard pill to swallow. The coastal springs are just starting to flow and some life has returned.”

Urging the protection of East Maui’s water for Native Hawaiian use, Joyclynn Costa of Haiku said the fight over East Maui water is nothing new and that she’s saddened area families must continually battle for rights.

“This has been going on since I was born,” said Costa, whose 83-year-old father from Nahiku also testified. “And yet we still come here to the same table with the same songs. It’s what they would equate to insanity.”

About 80 people, 22 of whom spoke, attended the meeting with four of the five state senators on the Water and Land Committee, including Big Island’s Kaialii Kahele, Maui County’s Gil Keith-Agaran and Oahu’s Clarence Nishihara and Gil Riviere. Testimony, including from Council Member Shane Sinenci, whose residency district includes East Maui, all called for protection against further depletion of East Maui’s streams.

Tiare Lawrence of Pukalani, Mahi Pono’s community relations director and a Hawaiian rights activist, discussed commitments from the new company, which also acquired A&B’s 15,000 acres of watershed and half of East Maui Irrigation, along with inherited obligations, such as fulfilling the interim in-stream flow standards.

Mahi Pono is two months away from finishing a draft environmental impact statement, Lawrence said, which was required for lessees by a 2016 bill passed by the Legislature. Also, EMI is awaiting county permits and a state review before it can finish restoration work for East Maui streams, she said.

Mahi Pono’s senior vice president of operations Shan Tsutsui, who was not at the meeting, said Wednesday that HB1326 would not harm interim in-stream flow standards set last year.

“We, as Mahi Pono, 100 percent agree with IIFS decisions, and we will honor that,” he said. “It’s not a question.”

Tsutsui emphasized that the company just purchased the land and is less than eight weeks into operations and said the company wants to do it the right way from the start.

“The reality is, we want to be great stewards of the land and water and only use what we need,” he said. “We can turn the page on a new chapter for diversified agriculture.”

Testifiers on Tuesday wanted to know if there are conditions on the permit extensions, if water can be diverted from streams slated for restoration, whether Mahi Pono has alternative Central Maui water sources that it could tap, what the company will pay for the water rights and what type of usage is needed.

“We need it to be made public what the economic deal is with these people,” said Jeffrey Paisner of Kula, who owns land in Nahiku. “But to allow them to continue to extend on a year-by-year basis — who gets to extend the lease? Not a grocery store? No store gets to extend the lease with a landlord without negotiating what they pay for it and what the conditions of being the tenant is.

“If all they’re doing is given an extension of what they’re paying now, then it’s going to be a continuation of the theft.”

Kimberly L. Thomas of Keanae encouraged others to be educated about various water bills moving through the Legislature. She said to support bills that would carve out East Maui protections and stop diversions, such as ones introduced by Maui County Rep. Lynn DeCoite and Sen. J. Kalani English.

Those bills did not make it out of committee.

Kahele, who chairs the Water and Land Committee and helped facilitate Tuesday’s meeting, said the issue with advancing HB1326 is that it doesn’t solely involve Mahi Pono and Maui.

“The issue is how do we find balance between 12 to 15 applicants in determining water usage,” he said at the meeting.

Senators toured East Maui streams to survey diversion and restoration efforts before the meeting Tuesday. They were scheduled to meet with county and Mahi Pono officials Wednesday.

Water from East Maui streams have been diverted through a system of ditches, tunnels and siphons for more than a century to irrigate sugar cane in Upcountry and Central Maui. A&B subsidiary Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co., the last sugar plantation in Hawaii, shutdown in 2016.

A&B sold its old sugar fields to Mahi Pono in December for $262 million. Mahi Pono is a partnership between Pomona Farming LLC, a California-based agricultural group, and the Public Sector Pension Investment Board (PSP Investments), a long-term investor and one of Canada’s largest pension investment managers.

* Kehaulani Cerizo can be reached at kcerizo@mauinews.com.

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