Rob Parsons

Same Old, Same Old

...A maddening resistance to change

by Rob Parsons

December 10 , 2009

Four separate assemblages last week showcased the bewildering extent to which Maui's leaders are still marching in step with the old saying, "The more things change, the more they stay the same."

In spite of multiple signs indicating the decay of long-standing institutions and practices, failure to heed the handwriting on the wall is hindering substantial progress, while overseers cling to the status quo like a frayed security blanket.

From the thundering surf sent as a reminder of human-induced climate change to foundation-rattling economic temblors, one would think the omens would evoke timely corrective measures from our utilities, plantations and politicos.

Tourism, sugar, pineapple, fossil fuel, planning strategies—all ripe for change. But due to entrenched thinking, denial, lack of vision or plain ineptitude, vital retrofits are continually put on hold. "Please listen to the music and the next available operator will assist you shortly."

Tuesday Evening—Velma Santos Community Center, Wailuku
About thirty people have gathered to offer testimony to the Board of Water Supply at the first public hearing on the long-awaited Water Use and Development Plan (WDUP) for Central and South Maui. With broad implications for the future of urban development and agriculture alike, the soiree is also a prelude for the state's final judgment on allocation for Na Wai Eha, the four great stream waters of the West Maui Mountains.

Native Hawaiians, taro growers, smart growth advocates and Hawaiian Commercial and Sugar employees all have their say, though with few questions asked by water board members. Chair Michael Howden finally expresses his frustration with the Department of Water Supply for not providing requested updates on the proposed Waiale Treatment facility. If approved, that plan could divert Na Wai Eha waters for more urban uses, with HC&S parent corporation Alexander & Baldwin retaining half of a potential nine-million gallon per day allotment—though details aren't finalized. "It's embarrassing," exclaims Howden, clearly discouraged at the lack of information from the administration.

Planning Director Jeffrey Hunt, however, does have something to offer—his opinion that the WDUP should wait until the County Council completes its review of the General Plan revision, which it may not tackle in earnest until after its yearly budget deliberations are finished next May. "We need to have planning based on planning [criteria]," says Hunt, "not based on water."

Yet he must know that the two are inseparable, and that intelligent water resource guidelines are essential to sustain an agricultural component capable of feeding our residents, as well as anticipating new urban growth. Both the WDUP and the General Plan update are years overdue. The Water Board recommendations to the Council, by law, must be sent within 180 days, while the Council's review of the Maui Island Plan must hear a final vote by October 2010. And it's a sure bet that where water is available, development money will follow.

Wednesday Evening – Maui Waena School, Kahului
The state Public Utilities Commission makes a rare appearance on the Valley Isle, conducting a public hearing required when Maui Electric Company, Inc. announced its request for a 9.7 percent rate increase, the first such adjustment in three years. According to a short blurb in the November issue of Consumer Lines, the newsletter and recipe sheet accompanying the monthly bill, the proposed increase would raise as much as $28 million more in 2010 than the current rate, to be put toward more than $122 million in "new capital projects to improve service reliability."

Among costs cited are more frequent inspections of utility poles and lines, upgrades for the Maalaea diesel generating units and "increased tree trimming around power lines for greater reliability." But the large rate increase request—enough to add $13-$15 to the average monthly residential bill—leaves many unanswered questions. For instance, would this increase fund the proposed 70-foot tall steel poles and overhead high voltage transmission lines proposed to march from Maalaea to a new substation in South Maui?

However, this isn't a public forum or question-and-answer session with MECO—it's a hearing on their 577-page application submitted to the PUC, bolstered by another 7,622 pages of supporting documents. Moreover, MECO didn't publish the meeting date and time in the December issue of Consumer Lines, and thus only a handful of citizens attended. (Alas, apparently the Christmas tree lighting advice and the croissant bread pudding recipe were more important than alerting rate-payers of meetings scheduled on three islands.)

West Maui resident and County Council candidate Elle Cochran asks the PUC to withhold their decision until MECO has made good faith efforts to help the public understand the details of their plans. MECO president Ed Reinhardt responds that he has an open-door policy and is glad to talk story with members of the community.

Brad Albert of Rising Sun Solar and the Hawaii PV Coalition expresses his concern that, although MECO has touted their integration of renewables into the grid, solar homeowners within five areas on Maui may be saddled with additional costs or may have their photovoltaic system denied if current net-metering ceilings are surpassed. Rule 14H stipulates that any circuit in excess of 10 percent distributed generation may necessitate a line study, paid for by the homeowner, to determine if his new system can be safely brought online without compromising the grid.

Albert reports that his customers have felt discouraged and helpless. "In addition to the financial hardship," he writes, "there is a moral injustice for those who want to offset their carbon footprint with a solar system and are denied access. We should do our best to provide equitable access to Hawaii's solar resource."

Thursday Pau Hana – Hoaloha Park, Kahului
Creeping down Kaahumanu Avenue at afternoon rush hour, as the sun slips low in the sky, I see a big white tent set up across from the Old Kahului Shopping Center, where Ah Fooks once stood. Is it a canoe club gathering? No, season stay pau. A Christmas tree sale? Nope—no fresh-cut spruce or Douglas firs in sight.

Yet a steady stream of cars drives in, and the crosswalk funnels many more to the gathering. As it turns out, it's the A&B/HC&S/ILWU rally to remind workers to turn out at County Council the following day, where a resolution to support agriculture water allocations will be discussed. The tactic is perhaps as old as the sugar mill itself: bring people together with the lure of food, and make a show of force sure to convince elected officials. The formula has often been repeated by developers, construction unions and building contractors.

But a critical thinker might question how a bean counter—in this case Chief Financial Officer Chris Benjamin, now appointed to plantation manager—can justify the expense for the tent and kau kau after projecting losses in excess of $20 million this year in A&B's agricultural sector. It's apparently part of an unwavering strategy of pitting plantation jobs as sacrificial lambs versus any talk of diminishing A&B's stranglehold on surface water diversions for sugar cane irrigation and processing.

Letters to the editor of The Maui News claim that stream restoration could mean the end of sugar, and 700-plus jobs. That notion is strongly refuted by Alan Murakami, attorney with Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation, representing kuleana users and taro growers who have petitioned for restoring East Maui streams.

"We need to debunk this notion that the root cause of HC&S's economic problems is the threat of taking its diverted water away," Murakami writes. "HC&S lost $13 million in 2008 and will lose $27 million by the end of this year—and while they have the water!

"Its problems are more with the global markets and the lower costs of producing sugar elsewhere, especially in Asia," he continues. "That's what all the other major plantations found out in the past three decades. HC&S wants the water so it can later convert its lands to whatever alternative developments it will pursue."

Friday Morning – County Council Chambers, Wailuku
In a move that many deemed politically motivated in support of A&B and the sugar plantation, County Council hears testimony for and against a resolution that would urge the state Commission for Water Resource Management to "consider the importance of agricultural uses," while setting instream flow standards for Na Wai Eha surface water diversions. Some felt the plantation's influence had reached beyond the opinion page and the rally of the previous night, all the way to the 8th floor of the County building.

Chair Danny Mateo defends the resolution, calling it beneficial to both small farmers and the larger struggling sugar cane operations. 'Iao Valley taro farmer John Duey says the resolution was after-the fact, since the CWRM has studied the matter for three years, already considered current and potential uses and issued preliminary standards in October that could restore nearly half of the current diversions.

Other testifiers remind the Council that healthy stream flows greatly recharge the overtapped 'Iao aquifer, the primary source of potable water throughout Central and South Maui. Community watchdog Lucienne de Naie, draws upon her years of water studies to propose several new "whereas" sections and to add several "missing facts" to the resolution.

In the end, the Council sends the proposed matter to committee, where it will likely be rendered impotent.

In the absence of visionary leadership to help bridge the gap from the withering status quo to a new "Green Economy," local residents must look elsewhere to fulfill the promises for local food security, renewable energy and a revitalized, diversified economy. Indeed, grassroots community efforts and entrepreneurial undertakings might prove more effective than slow-paced government initiatives. And frustrated citizens might get off their okoles to vote in new leadership in 2010. It could happen.