Fight over water rights brewing on Maui - Hawaii News Now - KGMB and KHNL

Fight over water rights brewing on Maui

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Christopher Benjamin Christopher Benjamin
Sheri Morrison Sheri Morrison

By Lisa Kubota - bio | email

PUUNENE, Maui (HawaiiNewsNow) - Sugarcane is a thirsty crop. The green fields in dry central Maui rely on an extensive private irrigation system which dates back to 1876. Most of the water used by the Hawaiian Commercial and Sugar Company comes from rainy east Maui. On average, 160 million gallons of water is diverted from streams there each day.

"We have traditionally had access to sufficient water to farm in what is otherwise a desert," Plantation General Manager, Christopher Benjamin said.

But in 2001 the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation filed petitions seeking to have water put back into 27 streams to help the eco-system and taro farmers. Last year the state water commission ruled on eight streams ordering that more than 12 million gallons of water a day be restored. The commission is expected to make a decision on the remaining 19 streams at a meeting Wednesday.

Its staff has recommended restoring water to only one of the streams. Another fight over water rights involves na wai eha -- the four waters of Maui. Up to 70 million gallons of water a day is diverted from the Iao, Waihee, Waikapu and Waiehu streams.

John Duey, the president of Hui O Na Wai Eha grows taro to feed his family.

"The reason I'm passionate about it one, the main thing, it's the law, and number two, it's a shame to see the streams as dry as they are," Duey said.

"Water is a public trust resource. It belongs to all. Big companies like A&B, like Wailuku Water Company, they're still stuck in that plantation mindset," Earthjustice Isaac Moriwake said.

HC&S-- which is a division of Aexander & Baldwin, has suffered financial losses because of a recent drought. HC&S says without an adequate water supply, it could be forced to shut down. That would affect 800 jobs plus additional ones involving outside vendors.

"There would be a lot of companies that wouldn't be able to survive if we go. So it's not just us. We'll take a lot with us when we go," Equipment mechanic Roland Perreira said.

The uncertainty is especially troubling for those who just found work after getting laid off from other companies.

"I'm getting nervous. It's like oh man, I just got laid off. If this water issue doesn't go through, I'll be laid off again," Heavy machine mechanic, Jeff Santiago said.

Some of the diverted water is also used by upcountry residents and farmers. The county administration is urging the commission not to make any disruptive changes.

"The green valley defines Maui, after all. It's green, it's beautiful from the visitors standpoint, but it's also reflective of the history of the county," Maui County Managing Director, Sheri Morrison said.

The commission faces a tough task -- given the emotional debate over this precious resource.

"I just want the people to know you know the people of HC&S have compassion. We wanna share with everybody. I know there can be a balance," Apprentice electrician, Esther Bugtong said.

"They've come out now - they want to share the water. <not only them, but Wailuku Water Company hasn't been sharing the water all these years> so it's time that the law be followed and we share the water."

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