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Na Wai ‘Eha ruling an aid for county’s acquisition

But Wailuku Water Co. says system purchase is lagging, updated rates might be set

Wailuku Water Co.’s Reservoir No. 10, a terminus reservoir for the Iao-Waikapu Ditch, is pictured during low water levels last year. While the state decision on Na Wai ‘Eha will help some details of the county’s anticipated acquisition of Wailuku Water Co.’s water delivery system, Avery Chumbley, Wailuku Water Co. president, said the ruling adds a heavier burden on the company to be both regulator and enforcer. AVERY CHUMBLEY photos

In the wake of the state water commission’s historic decision on Central and West Maui water rights last week, the County of Maui said the ruling carves out details that will help ongoing work to acquire Wailuku Water Co.’s water delivery system.

However, the state decision on Na Wai ‘Eha water rights doesn’t necessarily speed up the county process to buy the system, according to county Managing Director Sandy Baz. Located in Central and West Maui, Na Wai ‘Eha — or the “Four Great Waters” of Waihee River, Waiehu Stream, Wailuku River and Waikapu Stream — provides about 70 percent of county drinking water to Maui residents, some of which is funneled via Wailuku Water Co.’s water delivery system.

“No, it doesn’t make it faster,” Baz told The Maui News. “We still plan on acquiring it and we are going through that process.”

Meanwhile, Wailuku Water Co. President Avery Chumbley said that while the state has allocated money to purchase Na Wai ‘Eha watershed lands, the county is moving at such a slow pace that he questions whether the water infrastructure acquisition will happen at all.

“Unfortunately, the county has not moved at a rapid enough pace to satisfy us that this is really going forward,” he said last week. “So I suspect that I’m going to have to be going back to the PUC and open a new docket for a rate case and to establish a tariff for delivery of water under these contracts.”

A punawai that’s part of Wailuku Water Co.’s water delivery system is shown during low water levels last year. Wailuku Water Co. President Avery Chumbley said that the system, which brings Na Wai ‘Eha water to many users, is often misunderstood.

Citing financial losses, Wailuku Water Co. has sought for nearly two decades to sell its water delivery system, along with nearly 9,000 acres of Na Wai ‘Eha watershed land in the West Maui Mountains. The county in the past had considered buying the company’s assets, including the water delivery system and the land, for $9.5 million. 

Instead the county is now working on “bifurcating” the purchase and evaluating anticipated costs for the system alone.

One week ago, the state Commission on Water Resource Management issued a lengthy decision and order on Na Wai ‘Eha water use that officially recognizes appurtenant rights, including kalo farming and other traditional and customary practices. 

Saying it’s the most comprehensive application of the Hawaii Water Code to water use and protection in history, the decision impacts more than 150 different applications to use water, including small farmers and area landowners, to larger groups, such as the County of Maui and Mahi Pono. In all, 1,000 determinations resulted in 116 recognized appurtenant rights and 176 permits.

The commission’s decision approved two permits that total 3.2 million gallons per day so the County of Maui Department of Water Supply may continue to supply water from Na Wai ‘Eha system to more than 100,000 customers in Kuau, Paia, Spreckelsville, Kahului, Puunene, Kihei, Wailea, Makena, Waikapu, Wailuku, Waihee and Waiehu.

Baz on Friday said that the ruling clarifies responsibilities of Wailuku Water Co., which better defines portions of the anticipated acquisition. 

“As far as helping the acquisition, the decision and order makes it clearer what is encompassed in the acquisition,” he said. “Because of this decision and order, we know, OK, there are limitations that will be put on Wailuku Water Company, and they are set in stone. Or on paper. So we can at least analyze that clearer now than before the D and O.”

Chumbley, though, said the state decision places a heavy burden on the company, which serves as a quasi-public utility. Last week he said he wasn’t sure whether the company would appeal.

“If we have to be both the enforcer and the regulator, and people have an expectation and a need of getting a certain volume of water, and under the direction of the decision and order, I have to start cutting people off and reducing and restricting flows, or making other changes, I’m going to be the bad guy,” he said. “That’s not fair.”

Chumbley said that several complexities of operating the water system are misunderstood by the general public, such as inconsistencies in gauging, monitoring and enforcement, especially in light of climate change and worsening drought conditions.

He also said there’s a widespread belief that the system is in “disarray,” and he has echoed that the system is “functioning and reliable.”

It can be trusted to bring water to those who need it, whether for agricultural or traditional and customary purposes, Chumbley said.

“It is old, but it is extremely vital,” he said. “Moving into a 21st century-type function is a good thing for all of us. That’s the one positive direction that I think we’re headed in. This is 115-year-old sugar plantation-based system, and it’s going to have to change.”

Water rights in Hawaii have been a point of contention throughout history.

Sugar plantation operations on Maui yielded the creation of water delivery systems in the late 1800s and early 1900s that move water using gravity through siphons, tunnels and ditches across miles of land. 

While hailed as engineering marvels and proven vital for the general public in modern times to receive water, the systems during plantation days depleted natural streams and rivers, broke mauka to makai streamflow relied on by native flora and fauna, and took water from Native Hawaiians using it for traditional and customary practices, such as kalo farming.

In recent decades, the advocacy of community groups such as Hui o Na Wai ‘Eha has been key in establishing state-recognized in-stream flow standards that protect the environment and the rights of Native Hawaiian traditional and customary practices. 

Inevitably, relationships have been strained between in-stream users such as kuleana tenants and kalo farmers and off-stream users and stream diverters. But both the hui and the water company support the county’s acquisition of the water delivery system.

“One aspect is that there’s so much emotion around this, right?” Chumbley said. “From the community activists to the kalo growers to the agricultural users to just the general public. There’s a lot of misinformation and social media has not helped the situation at all. It’s made it markedly worse.”

To view the commission’s final decision and order, visit https://dlnr.hawaii.gov/cwrm/newsevents/cch/cch-ma15-01/.

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

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