Water director: East Maui streams are protected regardless of permit decision

Board of Water Supply Chairman Anders Lyons (left) and Vice Chairwoman Shay Chan Hodges (right) listen to testimony from county Department of Water Supply Director Jeff Pearson (center) at a board meeting Thursday in Wailuku. -- The Maui News / KEHAULANI CERIZO photo

The county’s top water official clarified what he called a “misconception” in the murky debate over the connection between East Maui waters and the debated HB1326 in the state Legislature, which would extend revocable water permits for Mahi Pono, the company that recently acquired 41,000 acres of Alexander & Baldwin’s farmland.

“There is a misconception about the contested case in East Maui,” Department of Water Supply Director Jeff Pearson said last week. “That contested case that was resolved . . . (it) provided for ‘X’ amount of water in the streams. . . . That’s the law now. There are things that have to be done so they have full restoration of those streams, but no matter what happens with (Act) 126 or (HB) 1326, those streams are restored.”

Last year, the state issued a landmark decision to restore 17 East Maui streams to full or near-full capacity. In June, interim stream flow standards were set to protect area farming, cultural practices and habitat. It was a hard fought, nearly two decadeslong battle that pitted Native Hawaiian taro farmers and cultural practitioners against A&B and its stream diversions for agriculture ventures.

“This went on for years,” he said at a Thursday water board meeting. “It was sad what took place here. I think that decision is going to stay.”

Mahi Pono, which is seeking the passage of HB1326, saying it is vital to farming operations, also acquired A&B’s 15,000 acres of watershed and half of East Maui Irrigation.

“I’m not going to speak for Mahi Pono, and I would like to not be an opponent or proponent of Mahi Pono,” Pearson said. “When all these streams are restored per the contested case, there is approximately 70 million gallons of water a day that would be available for off-stream use. I’m not saying it’s going to be diverted tomorrow. But that’s the calculations that staff did at the state water commission to allow for off-stream, beneficial use.”

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