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Water authority proposal earns public support

Dozens turn out to urge council to place charter amendment on ballot 

A proposal to create a county authority that would oversee water issues is gaining widespread support from the public that has long watched private entities control the diversion of streams. Photo courtesy of DLNR

Dozens of people testified Friday in support of establishing an authority to oversee local water issues and urged Maui County Council members to put the charter amendment on the general election ballot for voters to decide.

The charter amendment, proposed by Council Member Shane Sinenci, would create a Maui County Community Water Authority and East Maui Community Regional Board and allow the council to create additional regional boards. The water authority would look into the feasibility of acquiring long-term water leases for certain areas of Maui.

For decades, management of East Maui water resources has fallen to a private company that diverted streams to Central Maui for growing sugar cane. East Maui Irrigation, co-owned by Alexander & Baldwin and Mahi Pono, is currently applying for a 30-year water lease for about 33,000 acres of state-owned land in Nahiku, Keanae, Honomanu and Huelo.

Testifiers said they didn’t want a “foreign entity” to be in charge of water, alluding to EMI’s ties with Mahi Pono, whose investor and member-owner is one of Canada’s largest pension fund managers.

The council had not made a decision on the resolution up for first reading by 8 p.m. Friday.

But during the all-day meeting, Council Chairwoman Alice Lee said she was aiming to get the first reading done on the proposed charter amendments Friday.

A second and final reading is also needed.

The council has until July 15 to submit its proposed charter amendments to the Office of the County Clerk to place them on the general election ballot.

Toni Eaton, who is a member of the county Board of Water Supply but was testifying on her own behalf, pointed to the widespread support on Friday in favor the charter amendment. Eaton said as the council is “hemming and hawing” over the amendment, “it’s not about you guys. It’s about letting the people speak.”

She referenced the current and past Upcountry water shortages.

“If this doesn’t get on the ballot, they will be in constant state of water conservation,” Eaton said of Upcountry residents.

On Thursday, Maui County declared a Stage 1 water shortage for water consumers in Upcountry and West Maui service areas due to dry conditions and record-high average temperatures.

Albert Perez, executive director of Maui Tomorrow Foundation, said that if such an authority is in place, decisions made over water “would be made transparently, instead of a corporate board room.”

He added that if a private entity holds the water lease and if it is sold “we have a whole new period of uncertainty.”

Perez said this happened when Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. lands were sold to Mahi Pono in 2018. HC&S was a subsidiary of Alexander & Baldwin. EMI is also a subsidiary that is now co-owned by A&B and Mahi Pono.

But Perez said if the county has the water lease, it’s important that EMI employees be retained as they are the ones that know the system best.

Jessie Kekiwi-Aweau, who comes from one of the families who have many generations of taro farmers and gathers from mauka to makai, said her family has seen many changes in the stream flows along with the harm and damage to crops and stream life.

“We will not or cannot allow any foreign corporation or any corporation to do this to us again,” she said.

“Many of my kupuna have started this fight for returning of the water, many who have died. The next generation is finally seeing the water being returned. Some of our younger farmers are returning to the lo’i to open up more kalo,” she added.

She said she believes the water comes from crown lands and that “Ke Akua” has given the responsibility to manage it to the kanaka maoli.

But former Mayor Alan Arakawa expressed caution about the charter amendment in his testimony on Friday, saying “you have no guarantees” that if there is an advisory group that the leader will do what the council would like them to do.

He added that if the authority is created, the mayor will appoint the director and the council will get to approve or disapprove the leader.

“There is no guarantee that you will get who you want,” Arakawa said. He added that it will be the same with advisory members, who will make their own decisions.

Arakawa explained that jurisdiction over water is spread among the state and county and pointed out that the state Department of Land and Natural Resources will have the capability to decide who will receive the water lease, not the county.

The allocation of the water and how it will be used can be determined by the state Commission on Water Resource Management.

“The jurisdictions are pretty much split, and the county, even if you pass this legislation, is not going to be the one that determines who will get the contract,” Arakawa said.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.

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