Taro farmers criticize new bill in Maui water rights battle

Taro farmers criticize new bill in Maui water rights battle
(Image: Alan Murakami)
(Image: Alan Murakami)

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - A new bill in the lengthy fight over water rights on Maui has led to fierce debate. Frustrated Valley Isle taro farmers voiced their concerns to state lawmakers on Monday. Some legislators introduced House Bill 2501 after Alexander & Baldwin suffered a setback in court involving access to the stream water and 33,000 acres of state land.

The taro farmers said the legislation allows the company to get around the ruling which invalidates four revocable permits that allow for the diversion of millions of gallons of water from dozens of East Maui streams each day.

"We have been in the courts for several decades, begging the courts to enforce the laws so that we can bring a measure of justice and restore our kalo farms," said Mahealani Wendt, a representative for the Keanae-Wailuanui taro farming community.
"All we've ever wanted is for Alexander and Baldwin to share instead of taking everything."

Since the farmers' court challenge in 2001, the Board of Land and Natural Resources has renewed A&B's temporary permits annually on a holdover basis with the ongoing legal disputes. The bill would allow the holdover status to continue until a pending water rights application is resolved.

"It's the classic example of special legislation intended to protect a corporate beneficiary," said Summer Sylva, staff attorney for the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation, which has represented the taro farmers since the inception of the 2001 contested case hearing before the BLNR.

But Rick Volner, general manager of Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar, a division of A&B, said there are nine other state water permit holders in the same position who would benefit from the clarification that would result from the legislation. A&B applied for a long-term lease in 2001, but legal challenges have led to delays.

After the final cane harvest this year, A&B will only divert the amount of water that is needed, with the rest remaining in the watershed for other uses, Volner said in a written statement.

"To realize our vision for transitioning our 36,000 acres from sugar to diversified agriculture on Maui, continued access to the state's East Maui waters is essential. HC&S does not otherwise have access to waters of sufficient quantity and quality to make this significant transition," he wrote.

The court ruling allows Upcountry customers to still receive water that Maui County gets from A&B through stream diversions, according to Sylva. The taro farmers said they stand behind fellow farmers and ranchers, and that their efforts would not jeopardize other revocable permit holders.

State Rep. Ryan Yamane (D, Mililani-Waikele) co-sponsored the bill after hearing from other water users concerned about the potential impact on permits.

"What we're trying to do is address this gap permitting so that way water can continue both in central Maui, as well as in other areas, while these court cases or contested cases go through," explained Yamane. "There is water that needs to be restored to the streams, but also if we want to prevent homes from being on Central Maui and keeping that prime important ag land viable to grow food, we need to make sure there is water there."

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