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Study approved but water lease is not guaranteed

Board accepts final environmental study for area covering 33K acres in East Maui

The state Board of Land and Natural Resources voted on Friday to accept the final environmental impact statement for a proposed long-term East Maui water permit for Alexander & Baldwin and East Maui Irrigation Co. However, the decision does not guarantee a water lease. — DLNR photo

Echoing that the decision doesn’t guarantee a water lease, the state Board of Land and Natural Resources on Friday accepted a highly debated environmental study for a proposed long-term East Maui water permit for Alexander & Baldwin and its water delivery system subsidiary, East Maui Irrigation Co.

The board followed staff recommendations and voted 6-0 to accept the final environmental impact statement for a 30-year water lease comprising about 33,000 acres of state-owned land in Nahiku, Keanae, Honomanu and Huelo.

The companies are requesting that the lease allow roughly 92 million gallons per day of surface water to be conveyed through the system, with about 85 mgd potentially available for Central Maui agricultural fields and 7.1 mgd for Upcountry water customers and the Kula Agricultural Park.

Mahi Pono, which has citrus, avocado, coffee, watermelons, kale, broccoli, beans, ulu and other crops in production, said it would be able to yield 338 million pounds per year of food if the lease is granted. The diversified agriculture company in late 2018 acquired 41,000 acres of former sugar cane land and half of EMI from A&B.

Board member Wesley “Kaiwi” Yoon before the vote said the decision was tough. Passionate testimony that crosses the spectrum has been piling up since the draft and final environmental studies.

Water flows through East Maui Irrigation Co.’s system. The state land board voted Friday to accept a highly debated environmental study for a proposed long-term water lease for about 33,000 acres of state-owned land in East Maui. — DLNR photo

“This one was hard for me because under some duress, we talk about sustainable ag and diversified farming, within a COVID economy, it’s almost that we have no choice but to collectively commit to sustainable ag,” he said.

About two dozen people testified during the board meeting Friday, with slightly more than half asking members to reject the study. Opponents said the 8,000-page study does little to address significant system losses, doesn’t engage the community, requests too much water and ignores the proliferation of invasive species in the watershed area.

Supporters said that Mahi Pono’s crops, many of which are already in local stores, support food sustainability and create nontourism jobs — Hawaii essentials in the middle of a pandemic. They also argued that EMI permits will ensure water continues to flow to Maui County Department of Water Supply customers Upcountry, along with Kula Agricultural Park and the Nahiku community.

Ian Hirokawa, special projects coordinator for the Land Division overseeing the water lease process at state Department of Land and Natural Resources, acknowledged Friday that staff had some issues with the study but ultimately recommended the board accept it. Board members echoed similar statements ahead of the vote.

“We aren’t making a decision today about the lease — it’s about whether the FEIS is sufficient to be accepted under requirements of (Hawaii law Chapter 343),” Hirokawa said. “We discussed some of the issues we saw. We did put it in the submittal. At some point it would have to be resolved. We took a long look at it to say, ‘Does it meet the bar for acceptance?’ And ultimately it does.”

Separately, an environmental court judge recently sliced the amount of water EMI is allowed to divert from East Maui streams amid a BLNR contested case by Sierra Club, which is challenging the state’s issuance of EMI’s existing one-year revocable water permits and has been questioning the company’s water use requests, actual water use and system losses.

The state’s revocable permits have long been a flashpoint for some Native Hawaiians and environmentalists, who see the approvals as a blank check for big companies to take water without environmental or cultural accountability.

For some time, A&B didn’t have a water limit on revocable permits, which were annually granted by BLNR for more than a decade.

For more than 150 years, A&B diverted the main flows of East Maui streams through a series of ditches, siphons and tunnels for sugar operations in Central Maui and Upcountry. The company closed its sugar business in 2016.

A&B said Friday that it officially started the leasing process with the state in 2001 and Friday marked a significant “milestone.”

“We are in a very different place than when we started the lease process in 2001,” said Meredith Ching, A&B’s executive vice president of external affairs, who touted the farming work of Mahi Pono.

Later in the meeting, and just before a vote was taken, Yoon said that he hopes things are not what they used to be.

“I asked about the difference in time — if we are in a different place than in 2001 and I hope to God we are, and I hope to God we are at a different place than we were in sugar,” he said. “Sugar was what you want to say, but capitalism at one of its finest, and with that came a lot of poor decisions and adverse effects on our communities.”

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

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