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Mahi Pono replaces HC&S on water application

Contested case on stream diversions drawing to an end

Mahi Pono is taking over a water permit application filed by Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. a decade ago, placing the farming company in the middle of a longstanding stream dispute that is coming to a close.

The state Commission on Water Resource Management granted Mahi Pono’s request to take HC&S’ place on the permit application last month. The application seeks to use Na Wai ‘Eha surface water to irrigate 4,400 acres in the Waihee-Hopoi area.

HC&S applied for an existing surface water use permit in April 2009, asking for 36.29 million gallons per day of Na Wai ‘Eha surface water to irrigate the Waihee-Hopoi fields, according to commission documents. However, the permit process was held up as the state sought to establish interim in-stream flow standards for Na Wai ‘Eha.

The “Four Great Waters” of Waihee River, Waiehu Stream, Wailuku River and Waikapu Stream had long been diverted for sugar cane operations. But in 2003, nonprofits Hui o Na Wai ‘Eha and Maui Tomorrow Foundation asked the commission to amend their in-stream flow standards.

Over the course of several years that involved a contested case, an appeal to the Hawaii Supreme Court and negotiations among the parties, water was restored to the four streams. But the closure of HC&S in 2016 prompted the water commission to revisit the stream flows. HC&S lowered its original request to 19.48 mgd that would be used to grow bioenergy crops in the Waihee-Hopoi fields.

In November 2017, a hearing officer’s proposed decision and order allocated 15.65 mgd for HC&S’ request.

But since then, the commission has yet to take action on the decision and order. After Mahi Pono purchased 41,000 acres of former HC&S cane fields in December, both companies filed a motion in May to remove HC&S’ name from the permit and replace it with Mahi Pono’s.

Of the 4,400 acres covered by the water-use application, Mahi Pono plans to cultivate 3,700, including 800 acres of diversified agriculture and 2,900 acres of “tree orchard type crops,” such as macadamia nut and lime, Mahi Pono attorney Benjamin Kudo told the water commission during a hearing in August.

While the water commission did not grant Mahi Pono’s request for a continuation of the hearing on the motion, it found “good cause” to support Mahi Pono taking HC&S’ place as a party in the case.

Hokuao Pellegrino, president of Hui o Na Wai ‘Eha, said last week that the parties are now waiting for the commission to let them know when the final hearing will take place. The commission will listen to closing arguments and then decide on water allocations for both Mahi Pono and local residents who rely on the streams for farming and other needs.

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