Rob Parsons

Raising Water Awareness & Restoring Maui's Streams

Walking downriver for justice and sustainability

by Rob Parsons

October 1 , 2009

As with many other things in life, we tend to take water for granted. Yet water is amazing, and deserving of our great respect and stewardship. An upcoming march in support of restoring in-stream flows seeks to remind us of the importance of water not just to ourselves, but to all life.

James Michener's epic novel Hawaii begins with some 70 pages devoted to the geomorphic origins of the islands, describing the immense volcanic landforms rising from the ocean depths over millions of years. Any discussion of water in the Hawaiian Islands merits at least a passing recognition of its elemental force in fashioning the land, nourishing all beings and life forms that arrived here and providing the foundation for Hawaiian culture.

With passing eons, water pounded the shores, creating sandy beaches, and stormed down from above, sculpting lava landscapes into jutting cliffs towering over boulder-filled valley streams. Seeds arrived by wave, wind or wing and, kissed by the rain showers, came to life.

With the arrival of canoe-voyaging Polynesians, villages sprung up alongside fertile valleys, where abundant fresh water could be diverted to lo'i kalo, to cultivate the Hawaiian staple food and most revered crop, taro. Water flowing through the taro fields trickled back into the stream, providing a habitat for fish, crustaceans and limpets and allowing their natural spawning cycles to carry their eggs and larvae to the ocean, and back again to the streams.

In 'olelo Hawai'i, wai is fresh water, while waiwai translates to wealth. The modern Central Maui communities built around the life-giving streams all bear Hawaiian place names with reference to the waters: Waikapu, Wailuku, Waiehu and Waihe'e.

These same waters are now the source of heated debate, as traditional uses and rights converge with century-old plantation diversions and more recent demand for increasing development, often in arid locations. Water in Hawaii is a public trust resource, protected under the state constitution and water code. Yet legal challenges have been necessary to protect local citizens' rights from a worldwide trend towards privatization and commodification of fresh water.

Starting at 4pm Friday and sponsored by Hui O Na Wai 'Eha, Maui Tomorrow and Earthjustice, the Mauka to Makai Riverwalk will trek three miles downhill, from 'Iao Valley State Park to the state office building in Wailuku. After that, sign-wavers and supporters can walk another two blocks to First Friday festivities on Market Street, where an informational booth will help raise awareness of stream restoration for Na Wai 'Eha (the Four Great Waters) of Kahalawai (the West Maui Mountains): Waikapu, 'Iao, Waiehu and Waihe'e.

The state Water Commission will hear final arguments on October 15 in a 9am meeting at 'Iao Congregational Church, part of a five-year process that began with the 2004 filing of a petition to restore stream flows and to protect native stream life, Hawaiian traditional practices and other uses. The petition came at a time when one of the major landowners in the area, Wailuku Agribusiness, was selling large parcels of land that once was part of Wailuku Sugar's plantings.

The petitioning parties maintained that Wailuku Agribusiness—which ceased sugar production in the 1980s in favor of macadamia nut trees, only to abandon that operation by the late '90s—had greatly reduced need from its original irrigation diversions. As Earthjustice attorney Kapua Sproat put it: "The water not being used should be left in the stream" where it would help recharge diminishing underwater aquifers, restore stream biota and revitalize the near-shore ocean ecosystems.

Wailuku Agribusiness (whose name has now been changed to Wailuku Water Company) refuted claims of water wasting. Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar, one of Wailuku Water's recipients, appeared before the commission to argue about the quantities needed to irrigate its central Maui cane fields.

In March 2008, the Commission on Water Resource Management agreed to take over management of four major streams in central Maui. That shift meant that anyone diverting water or planning to divert water from those streams now had to apply for a permit.
In April, Hearings Officer Lawrence Miike issued his decision, recommending that about half the diverted stream flows be restored—totaling an average of 34.5 million gallons a day. "If the full Commission approves this recommendation," says an Earthjustice press release, "Na Wai 'Eha streams would again flow mauka-to-makai and come back to life."
After the April recommendations, Earthjustice posted the following:

"The proposed decision validates what we've known all along, that HC&S has viable alternatives to destroying these streams, but prefers to use stream water because it is 'cheap' or 'free,'" said Irene Bowie, Executive Director of Maui Tomorrow. "There is nothing cheap or free about the priceless natural and cultural value of streams flowing mauka to makai (from the mountains to the sea), and private companies aren't entitled to maximize their profits off of public water.

"The ongoing Na Wai 'Eha case parallels the landmark Waiahole Ditch case on Oahu—a battle over the future of water and land use in Hawai'i that resulted in the path-breaking decision of the Hawaii Supreme Court in 2000 recognizing water resources as a public trust and reaffirming the state's trust responsibilities to protect public instream uses."

Like the Waiahole case, the Na Wai 'Eha case involves local community groups seeking to ensure lasting protection for streams in the face of unchecked demand for industrial agriculture and urban development. Unlike in the Waiahole case, where the former Oahu Sugar plantation land converted to diversified agriculture, here, the former Wailuku plantation sold off its lands and has sought to keep control of the water as an independent source of private profit.

"Wailuku Water Company's attempted water profiteering is an affront to the principle, enshrined in the Hawaii Constitution and affirmed by the Hawaii Supreme Court, that water is a public trust resource that belongs to all," said Earthjustice attorney Isaac Moriwake. "We hope that the Commission will follow through on its trust obligations to ensure that justice, and the waters of Na Wai 'Eha, will flow freely for the benefit of all the people of Hawaii."

Alexander & Baldwin, HC&S's parent company, is concerned that setting interim in-stream flow standards for Na Wai 'Eha "has the potential to hurt Hawaii's communities and agricultural industry," according to an article in the April/May issue of Po'okela, their company newsletter. They maintain that the IIFS recommendations "are so high that they would cut by one-half the amount of West Maui stream water currently available to HC&S (for 6,000 acres of cane in the Maalaea/Wailuku area)."

Employees were urged to support the company's position through calls, letters and e-mails to officials, and through testimony at upcoming public meetings. "A&B is committed to doing everything we can to keep HC&S in operation," said Chris Benjamin, A&B's chief financial officer and the recently appointed general manager of HC&S.

Last week, Benjamin announced that sugar cane harvesting would soon be shut down for yearly factory maintenance, though for an expected five months—much longer than the usual off-season break around the holidays. The extended layoff period is attributed to an ongoing drought, meaning fewer acres have been planted and crops in the field take longer to age.

A&B is facing even greater losses in its agricultural sector than the $13.2 million recorded in the first half of this year, already greater than the $13 million in losses they incurred in 2008.

While the long-term prospect of 32,000 acres in sugar cane production is uncertain, some residents are grateful for the five-month cane-burning hiatus. To damper the enthusiasm: in lieu of available bagasse (cane fiber), plantation obligations to generate electricity to Maui Electric Company will now be met by burning increasing amounts of imported coal.

Earlier this year, A&B completed a draft EIS for a proposed 9-million gallon water treatment plant at Waiale, on the outskirts of Wailuku near the prison. The project comes with an estimated $30 million price-tag, cost-shared with the County. A&B would then receive half of the output—some 4.5 million gallons—of potable water for urban uses. A&B development plans that would utilize the proposed water allocation include the 179-acre expansion of the Kahului Business Park, a 600-unit housing project in North Kihei and an 800-acre project district in the Waiko Road area.

Quoted in The Maui News last March, Earthjustice attorney Isaac Moriwake was critical of the timing of A&B's environmental document release. "We think it's entirely premature for A&B to be making big plans for Na Wai 'Eha without knowing how much flow must be returned to the streams," Moriwake said. "We also think it speaks volumes about HC&S's claims that it needs all the water for sugar. As usual, A&B is trying to have its cake and eat it too."

At least Na Wai 'Eha supporters will be heading downhill on Friday, even if stream waters are not. The once mighty 'Iao Stream is now a mere trickle in a concrete channel, as it's almost entirely diverted near Kepaniwai Park in 'Iao Valley.

It is often said, presumably in jest, that water flows uphill toward money. Final decisions by the state Water Commission may soon indicate to what extent that adage is true.