Water rights bill appears dead, but supporters still hope for a last-minute revival

Environmentalists fight back against governor’s bid to revive controversial water rights bill

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Farmers and ranchers met with Gov. David Ige at the state Capitol on Friday, conveying their hopes that lawmakers will revive a controversial water rights bill that appears dead for this legislative session.

State legislators did not pass House Bill 1326, which would have extended temporary permits that allowed water from streams to be diverted for agricultural purposes.

The current permits expire at the end of the year, and farmers and ranchers say they’re afraid they will have to turn off their water supply if the permits are not renewed ― effectively killing their farms.

“We cannot farm in the climate of uncertainty. Farming is a long term proposition, and we need assurances that water will be available,” said Jerry Ornella, a farmer and the president of East Kauai Water User’s Cooperative.

Alexander and Baldwin, which diverts more stream water than any other single entity in the state, is warning hundreds of farmers ― and thousands of Upcountry Maui residents ― that they’ll likely be negatively impacted.

But the Sierra Club, which sided with native Hawaiian taro farmers and believes the old bills gave A&B preferential treatment, says new legislation isn’t needed.

“There’s really no need for hysteria, there’s no need to panic,” said Marti Townsend, chapter director for the Sierra Club of Hawaii. “We feel that the administration has all the authority it needs now to issue regulations to clarify the situation.

"There is not unnecessary fear that water takes might be interrupted,” she added.

The murky issue can come across so complicated that some farmers are battling each other.

“It’s all the little guys that get caught up,” said Bobby Farias, Kunoa Cattle Company’s president.

"It's really unfortunate the community has been pit against each other this way," said Townsend.

The DLNR says it is still working on a leasing process, but agrees water permit holders don’t have enough time to get approval before they expire.

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