Rob Parsons

Speakers Question, Defend Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar's Maui Water Diversions

Despite powerful friends, the plantation may be losing its grasp on the island's water

by Rob Parsons

October 22, 2009

If the attendees at last week's water commission meeting in Paia are any indication, a familiar cast of characters still holds political clout on Maui and in Hawaii.

Governor Lingle, her Department of Agriculture Director Sandra Lee Kunimoto and Mayor Tavares headlined a who's-who list of testifiers, as the state Commission for Water Resource Management heard a full range of comments on the implications of returning flows to East Maui streams. An overflow crowd of more than 150 people filled Paia Community Center, many of them East Maui taro farmers or Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar (HC&S) plantation employees.

A concerted push was made by HC&S, the Chamber of Commerce, Maui County Farm Bureau and others to speak out to "protect agricultural water" and save 800 plantation jobs threatened by multi-million dollar losses with the sugar crop. Yet by the end of the evening, even HC&S employees were calling to support taro farmers by returning more water to the streams, especially in Honopou and Nahiku, and to find ways to stop dividing the community over the water issue.

HC&S plantation manager Chris Benjamin said that with reduced yields from a 3-year drought, their losses this year could be $25 million. Shareholders are not very tolerant, he said, and come January parent corporation Alexander & Baldwin will have to make hard decisions about the future of sugar. He staid they're looking into alternatives but "that is not possible today." He indicated they need assurances of water, and to keep sugar in the ground until they can make a transition.

The next speaker, Upcountry permaculturist/acupuncturist Michael Howden, challenged those assertions and chastised Benjamin for publicly stating at a recent meeting that HC&S is "not considering any other crop." Howden called for the company to embrace real alternatives to "growing a thirsty tropical grass on sand dunes in Central Maui."

Howden, also chair of the Maui Board of Water Supply but speaking on his own behalf, asked what the County is doing to find solutions. He spoke of millions of gallons of diverted water leaking out of the decrepit Waikamoi flume system, and said the County needs high lift pumps and more filtration at their Kamaole Weir treatment plant.

Howden sternly reminded the audience that the plantation's industrial monoculture is poisoning our air, soil and aquifer. "It's really hard to watch this and go on as usual, and pretend it's okay," he concluded.

Kula organic farmer Gerry Ross, who grows more than 40 crops on four acres, called this the "defining issue of our time." He spoke of efficient water use, using companion and cover crops and returning organic material to the soil so it holds the water more effectively.

Maui Tomorrow Executive Director Irene Bowie pointed out there has been no analysis provided of HC&S' economic viability, or of alternatives to sugar.

Edwin "Skippy" Young of Nahiku told commissioners that Makapipi Stream has been dry since last year. He said he asked East Maui Irrigation manager Garrett Hew to release water to flush the stagnant pools, but Hew refused. Addressing plantation workers who were told to show up to help save their jobs, Young said bluntly, "HC&S workers, your bosses stay lying to you."

"Poor plantation workers," said Uncle Charlie Maxwell, who said he started working in the HC&S fields at age 18, "they just call you together and you nod your head.

"We should find an alternative crop [to sugar]," continued Maxwell. "It's a dinosaur." Maxwell said Hawaiians came to the islands 3,000 years ago and held a cultural and spiritual devotion to the land. "Taro farmers should be number one," he added.

Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation attorney Alan Murakami reminded the commission that the burden is on HC&S to demonstrate that it's not harming taro growers; the public doesn't have to prove that returning stream flows wouldn't be a hardship for the plantation.

Yet the plantation had plenty of testifiers speaking to uphold their diversion of stream waters, starting with Governor Lingle, who called for "balance" to "make sure existing users have enough water to thrive" and told CWRM members that the policy they choose will also apply to the rest of the state.

Representatives from the Farm Bureau, Hotel Association, Department of Water Supply, Chamber of Commerce, ILWU, Maui Electric and Maui Land & Pineapple all spoke of the importance of ensuring the plantation's viability. Mayor Tavares favored a cautious approach, with "incremental" return of instream flows, while monitoring the impacts.

Eliza Goodhue said her grandmother fought for water rights in New England many years ago. "We need a consciousness change about water," she said, "and to grow things of benefit to us all."

Honopou resident Joey Buck read excerpts from A&B's recent 10K report filing, listing developments planned for Central Maui. "Where will the water come from for thousands of homes?" she asked.

Buck also noted that the agricultural sector constitutes only 6 percent of A&B's total revenue. She read a quote in the report that stated proposed stream diversions "won't affect HC&S's operation."

Foster Ampong implored those gathered to understand the real meaning of the word "sustainability." He likened water for the Hawaiians to the importance of buffalo to Native Americans.

Lucienne de Naie said that, from her experience hiking in East Maui, it's not just streams being diverted but "every little seepage [being] collected into the ditches, leaving the stream beds dry."
Kula resident and retired MCC professor Dick Mayer claimed the ditch systems have been adequately paid for over time and should belong to the public. He asked what the cost of water delivery would be if the County took over the system.

Mayer said windmills could be used to pump brackish waters from HC&S wells, and stated that alternative crops could provide more than the 800 jobs the company says are in danger. He provided a detailed list of 10 potential and current water users, and recommended the CWRM put them in a matrix to clarify the uses.

Wesley Bissen said he's a third generation HC&S worker. "I'm in the economical system," he stated. "I gotta live, so I work at HC&S."

Another HC&S worker, Sheldon Biga—the 42nd speaker of the night—said he's part of a committee forming to discuss things, and reached out to all in the audience to work together with them.