Rob Parsons

Flowing with the changes

A watershed decision for streams and other major shifts

by Rob Parsons

October 02, 2008


Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar employees listen to testimony at a meeting of the Commission for Water Resource Management.

Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar employees listen
to testimony at a meeting of the Commission
for Water Resource Management.

"Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or the present are likely to miss the future."
-John F. Kennedy

Two days of meetings convened by the state Commission for Water Resource Management (CWRM) filled the Haiku Community Center with an overflow crowd. Toward the back of the room, a few dozen redshirted employees of Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar (HC&S) listened to staff recommendations and testimonial pleas to return waters diverted to the plantation's sugar cultivation fo more than a century.

Dozens of native Hawaiians and taro growers rallied their cause of right versus might, while more than a dozen uniformed officers (both Maui police and state Department of Conservation and Recreation Enforcement officers) watched the proceedings. After an epic 11 hour meeting on Wednesday, the CWRM heard more testimony on Thursday, and then began to deliberate on recommended interim Instream Flow Standards.

Hours later, the CWRM board members voted unanimously to return at least 12 million gallons daily back into five stream systems on Maui's windward slopes, stretching from Honopou to Wailuanui. The decision represents the most significant change in water use allocation since the Waiahole decision on Oahu that returned water from defunct sugar plantings on the Ewa Plain to streams and taro growers. That ruling has been tied up in court appeals for the past dozen years.

Change rarely happens overnight. It is more commonly measured over time, be it months, years, decades, centuries or eons. In the case of Maui's last remaining sugar plantation, last week's ruling changes the water outlook seven years after Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation took up a petition filed by Na Moku Aupuni O Koolau Hui and three East Maui taro growers. Yet Wailuanui taro farmer Ed Wendt reminded the commissioners that Uncle Harry Mitchell had begun a contested case over Waiokamilo Stream in East Maui back in 1985. Commission staff revealed that plantation diversions have been an ongoing issue for much longer, noting petitions filed by native Hawaiians in both 1881 and 1897 over decreased stream flows, or "stolen water" as many testifiers noted.

Two days later, Mauians gathered at rallies in Kihei and Kahului to hear Barack Obama's sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, talk about another kind of change-political change. Hundreds of people showed up to hear Soetoro-Ng address Obama's platform of "Change We Need." Supporters were asked to redouble their efforts to reach out to friends and relatives in swing states and to elect local Democrats to help reverse the Republican legacy of the past eight years that has eroded American democracy.

At press time, it also seems apparent that the U.S. Congress will not succumb to a last gasp White House effort for an unprecedented $700 billion bailout of teetering financial institutions. That represents a welcome change in the status quo of elected officials paying the tab for any number of cockamamie schemes that cross their desks, including an estimated $3-$4 trillion tab for the ongoing war in Iraq. Nevertheless, it sent the Dow Jones daily average plummeting to a record loss of nearly 800 points, the largest drop in history. It's clear that the economy is in flux, but it's much more difficult to see where all this will lead us. Perhaps more people will be on street corners looking for change-spare change.

Alternatively, there may be a sufficient groundswell to begin to turn the tide against the heavy corporate influence on politics and the economy, both nationally and locally. If legislators can be dissuaded from oil industry-led ploys for more drilling, both offshore and in sensitive wildlife reserves, we can begin to steer our economy in a new direction, toward green jobs in renewable energy.

With airlines failing, local businesses folding, vacation rentals getting shut down and layoffs at Molokai Ranch and Maui Land & Pineapple, jobs are paramount in discussions of the local economy. The recent Hawaiian Congress of Planning Officials conference at the Grand Wailea Hotel brought in keynote speaker Michael Shuman-attorney, economist and author of Going Local and The Small-Mart Revolution. Shuman presented a variety of strategies for reinvigorating the local economy and helping offset the $11 billion that leaves the state each year to import fuel and food

Testimony at the CWRM hearings in Haiku also included pleas for protecting the 800 jobs at HC&S by ensuring the amount of water the plantation would receive. Willy Kennison, Maui division director of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 142 wondered, "What is the long-term viability of HC&S? It's tied to water availability." He asked the commission to be sure their actions did not cause a "damaging or disastrous impact" on HC&S.

But other testifiers noted that HC&S employees would be eligible for unemployment benefits, while taro growers would not. Upcountry County Council candidate Michael Howden, who serves on the Maui< Board of Water Supply, called the matter, "Fundamentally an issue of social justice. It resembles a feudal system based upon< class and race."

Howden also addressed another argument for maintaining water diversions to the plantation-Maui Electric Company's (MECO) claim that they provide necessary firm power through bagasse burned at the Puunene Mill, with the excess sold to MECO. Howden noted that in order to combust the fibrous cane trash in their boilers, HC&S also burns 60,000 tons of coal yearly. He inquired whether this should indeed be considered renewable energy, as it is derived from an imported fossil fuel.

While water availability plays a part in the long-term viability of HC&S, surely there are other factors. The collapse of every other plantation statewide over the past two decades wasn't merely due to water issues. The state's other surviving sugar plantation, Gay & Robinson on Kauai, recently announced they will be leasing their lands for a venture to convert sugar to ethanol for fuel. HC&S has studied the potential for converting from commodity sugar production to a biofuel plantation, but has no immediate plans to change.

Perhaps it's time to get with the program. Charles Darwin once wrote, "It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change."

With murmurings to shift our dependence on imports and to build local sustainability, HC&S would be wise to engage in strategic planning to overhaul their operation and diversify. Jobs could be preserved, even created by adapting their existing monoculture agribusiness to a mix of food and energy production, to fuel our local economy and feed our communities.

At the CWRM hearings, Seth Raabe, who holds a degree in tropical agriculture and manages a 13-acre farm in Kipahulu, testified that his small farm has 10 employees, or nearly one job per acre. By contrast, the 800 HC&S jobs on the 37,000-acre plantation means only one job per 46 acres.

Pauahi Ho`okano, a Hawaiian language teacher with the immersion program at King Kekaulike, also farms taro in Wailuanui with her husband Steven. "It's not right," she said, "pitting Kula farmers' rights against traditional Hawaiian farmers." She was referring to testimony by Warren Watanabe of the Maui County Farm Bureau, who opposed the interim stream flow recommendations because of questions of the "process" for determining amounts to return to the streams.

Council aide Jock Yamuguchi read testimony from Council member Michelle Anderson, who chairs the Water Resources Committee. "It is the diverter [East Maui Irrigation/ HC&S] who has the burden of proof under state law to justify that their diversions are not causing injury to downstream users."

Pauahi Ho`okano agreed. "The [commission] staff put the burden of proof on the taro growers," she exclaimed. "It's unfair. Completely unfair! It's ridiculous!" She also questioned the validity of EMI's "holdover permit," which she stated, "does not even exist in law." She also asked that a taro farmer be allowed to sit on the commission rather than Meredith Ching, a senior Vice President to Alexander & Baldwin, parent company of EMI and HC&S. Ching was present at the hearings, but recused herself from voting and sat in the audience.

Steven Ho`okano said there is not enough water being released in Waiokamilo to bring cool water to keep his taro from rotting, and he complained that the state-appointed monitor was not fulfilling his duty. He said that growing taro and having sufficient water, "Is an inherited right, through my koko," (Hawaiian blood quantum).

Hana resident Joseph Villarimo, one of the youngest testifiers, said, "It's an art form being a Hawaiian, because they were so in-synch with their surroundings." He said a spring on their property in Ulaino is now dried up.

Last week's momentous decision is a starting point to revitalize stream and ocean ecosystems and cultural practices for food production that have spanned many generations. Much vigilance will be needed to ensure that other waters statewide are allocated fairly, and in accordance with not only state law but with common sense for survival of the land and all who live here.

The times they are a-changin.'