Water officials mull options as session wanes

Board asks whether EMI would deliver water even if HB1326 fails

County of Maui Board of Water Supply Chair Shay Chan Hodges asks the county’s top water official, Jeff Pearson, about the implications of House Bill 1326 for Maui residents at a meeting Thursday in Wailuku. Pearson said he will discuss whether Upcountry water will be affected after the end of the state legislative session, since the fate of the bill is unclear. The Maui News / KEHAULANI CERIZO photo

WAILUKU — As the governor plunged into the contentious water bill debate and its potential impact on the state, the county Board of Water Supply focused on its local implications, particularly whether Upcountry drinking water would be affected if the measure fails.

The water board questioned Department of Water Supply Director Jeff Pearson on Thursday about the impacts of House Bill 1326, including whether East Maui Irrigation could continue to maintain the ditch system that supplies the county if the bill doesn’t pass.

Pearson said the county is discussing contingency plans, but won’t have details until the end of the state legislative session because anything can happen before then.

Two very different versions of the bill were suspended in Senate committees recently. But it remains unclear whether either version, or a totally new one, could emerge before the session’s end on May 2. On Thursday, Gov. David Ige sent a letter to Legislature leaders urging them to resurrect the bill.

HB 1326 would extend one-year revocable water permits for an additional period of time while applicants seek long-term leases, essentially piggybacking on its predecessor, Act 126, which sunsets this year. The measure could impact 12 applicants, ranging from Alexander & Baldwin and Mahi Pono, who share ownership of East Maui Irrigation, to other landowners, small farmers and ranchers on Big Island and Kauai.

Don Atay

Supporters of the bill say more time is needed to obtain environmental reports and other requirements of long-term leases, and that approval would ensure water for farming, ranching, clean energy production and public use. Opponents say it writes a blank check to lessees, who should show environmental and financial transparency before obtaining water rights.

Water discussions on Maui are especially heated because A&B has a long history of diverting water from East Maui streams for sugar operations, a practice that was reversed by the state last year in a landmark decision to restore interim in-stream flow standards for key streams there. The determination was a hard-fought battle for Native Hawaiian cultural practitioners and kalo farmers who for decades have sought protection of East Maui streams’ natural flow.

Still, the question remains over the impact to about 35,000 users of Upcountry’s water, which is fed by groundwater wells and three surface water-reliant treatment plants, with one, Kamole Weir, linked to EMI’s holdover permit. If owners A&B and Mahi Pono do not get approval, some wonder how their system would be maintained for public trust purposes only.

Asked for the best- and worst-case scenario at the meeting on Thursday, Pearson said that it depends on whether water is flowing through the ditch system.

“Bill passes, bill doesn’t pass, if there is still water to Kamole and the water is adequate for the needs of Upcountry, then we’re fine,” he said. “Worst case is, well, if the bill passes then it’s pretty safe that there will be water to Kamole. If the bill doesn’t pass, then we are somewhat reliant on the actions of Mahi Pono and how they’re going to react to not having these permits available to divert water.”

Pearson said that from speaking with representatives from A&B, it may be “difficult to divert small amounts of water just to satisfy Kamole Weir.”

When asked whether EMI would commit to transporting water for public trust, Pearson said that he doesn’t want to speak for EMI.

“I don’t want to put words in EMI’s mouth,” he said. “Before I said I was comfortable and confident, and I don’t want to say that, I’ll get in the Sunday paper. I would hope that they would meet the public trust and they would be . . . good citizens.”

Testifiers at the meeting spoke for and against the measure, paralleling the statewide division.

“What upsets me the most about this situation is the lack of regard given to Upcountry’s predicament,” said testifier David DeLeon, a Haiku resident.

“The opposition to HB 1326 seems mostly focused on ridding A&B from the watershed,” he added. “If that is the case, then go propose legislation that specifically does that — legislation which ideally would have a plan for how Upcountry will continue to receive a dependable water supply after A&B is removed from the picture. The lack of a plan leaves Upcountry vulnerable, without a dependable water system.”

Testifier Don Atay, executive assistant for Council Member Shane Sinenci, who represents East Maui and opposes the bill, said that several other EMI water sources can get enough water for Upcountry.

“Why we are in opposition of that bill is because for over 100 years, A&B has taken all the water for their sugar plantation,” he said.

“I used to be in charge of that ditch system,” Atay added. “That’s why I’m saying this. It’s a fallacy to say there’s no water for EMI to operate the Upcountry water. The Upcountry water only uses about 10 million gallons or less. That ditch system holds over 250 million gallons at its capacity.”

When asked whether the water department would seek a permit to take water from state land if HB 1326 fails, Pearson said he would have to talk with Mayor Michael Victorino.

“That’s a good question,” he said. “I’m not going to answer that because I will have to talk with my mayor.”

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