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Water board panel urges county purchase of EMI

Estimated cost of operations offered, not purchase price

WAILUKU — Emotions bubbled over Thursday during a heated Board of Water Supply meeting where one member asked to be excused and a testifier stormed out.

At issue was East Maui water rights — who gets water, how much and for what purposes.

The topic was not new but has brought parties to the boiling point several times this year at state Legislature in May and at the state Board of Land and Natural Resources meeting last week.

The latest outbursts came at the Board of Water Supply meeting, where a three-member subcommittee of Shay Chan Hodges, Norman Franco and Antonette Eaton released its findings on the feasibility of purchasing and maintaining the East Maui Irrigation water transmission system.

The temporary investigative group was formed in July when water permits held by Alexander & Baldwin, the parent company of East Maui Irrigation, appeared to be in jeopardy. The transmission system of ditches, siphons and tunnels delivers water from East Maui streams to Upcountry and Central Maui for agriculture, but also supplies 35,000 Upcountry residents with drinking water.

At the time, a Honolulu judge had invalidated the one-year revocable permits, rolled over for more than a decade to A&B, for the drawing of water from state lands in East Maui, and the state Legislature declined to extend the revocable permit process after often contentious hearings earlier this year.

The state Intermediate Court of Appeals overturned the lower court ruling in June as the water board was considering forming the temporary investigative group. Last week, the BLNR approved revocable permits for A&B for 2020, with 5 million gallons per day allocated for county municipal water users and state projects.

Most of the 45 mgd water allotted to A&B will go to agricultural operations of Mahi Pono, which purchased A&B’s old sugar fields.

The subcommittee report recommends that the county “take immediate steps to secure community ownership and control of the EMI water delivery system.”

“This TIG believes that ownership of the EMI water delivery system by the people of Maui — in the form that is most cost-effective, accountable, environmentally responsible, transparent and meets the needs of the island’s diverse stakeholders, in particular Native Hawaiians — will ultimately be the only way to guarantee that the public trust is maintained and remains safely in community hands,” the report says.

Annual operational costs were estimated at $12.5 million based on improvements, maintenance and risk management, along with watershed monitoring, restoration and annual debt service.

Currently, EMI operational costs are $2.5 million, according to an A&B report.

The report did not address the actual cost of purchasing the EMI system but did point to how much Mahi Pono paid thus far for its 50 percent stake — $2.7 million.

In addition, there is no indication that A&B/Mahi Pono is interested in selling EMI.

Utilizing scores of volunteer hours, the 85-page subcommittee report draws from documents such as the Maui Island Draft Water Use and Development Plan and the A&B/EMI draft environmental statement published Sept. 23. The subcommittee sought to release its report before the closing of the comment period on Nov. 7.

Members of the water panel were at odds over procedural rules, especially over subcommittee members testifying before a recent County Council committee meeting.

“While I initially was concerned, I think the board members represented themselves as individuals and without getting into hot water. I really appreciate the effort they went through to compile this,” said member Dean Frampton. “As a matter of sequencing, I think we’re better off speaking as one voice, and that is after we’ve had a chance to digest it and take action on it.”

Months ago, testifiers spoke in favor of the subcommittee formation but against the county acquiring the system.

“I don’t like the idea of the county owning it,” said Albert Perez of Maui Tomorrow during a July water board meeting. “I think the county is going to be too politically exposed. And so I would like to have some other entity that people are appointed to that would be at least partially insulated from the politics at the moment.”

On Thursday, people testified in support of the subcommittee but did not take a position over who should own the system.

“That TIG you guys doing, I back that up 100 percent,” said Samuel A. Akoi IV of Kipahulu. “It’s unnecessary for other entities from the Mainland to lease our land, our water. The water belongs in the river.”

Questions remain about whether the advisory water board will support the recommendations as a whole and whether the Mayor Michael Victorino administration or the council will take up the report.

For information on the 85-page TIG report, visit www.mauicounty.gov/DocumentCenter/View/119847/2019-10-17-TIG-Report.

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