HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - State senators approved a measure Tuesday that allows Alexander & Baldwin to continue diverting water from East Maui streams.
The controversial decision was made even though Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co., the state's last sugar mill, is shutting down at the end of this year.
"This isn't A&B's water. It belongs to the state of Hawaii," said state Sen. Gil Riviere, who is opposed to the decision. "They don't have a permit right now. The court invalidated their permits. Yet, they're continuing to divert all this water."
Officials estimate 160 million gallons of water are diverted from East Maui streams by A&B daily.
Since the company is closing its sugar plantation, many had asked whether the water would not longer be diverted.
The bill that passed in the Senate Tuesday allows A&B to maintain its rights to the water for the next three years. During that time, the state Board of Land and Natural Resources is set to make a decision on a long-term lease.
Opponents of the bill say the streams need to be permanently restored. But supporters say A&B has already returned water to three streams and has pledged to restore five more.
"The fear is that we would have dust bowls again, so there has to be some water. And I think what we're trying to find is the new balance. Recognizing that there has to be equitable use," said state Sen. J. Kalani English, whose district includes Hana and Upcountry Maui.
Resident Kaukohu Wahilani, meanwhile, disagreed.
"The water is for everyone. Back in ancient times you could not divert water. The water had to flow in its natural course."
House bill 2501 was drafted after a January 8 ruling by state Judge Rhonda Nishimura, who invalidated the water diversion permits issued by the Department of Land and Natural Resources.
A&B paid the state $13,200 per month for the permits every year for 13 years. Nishimura ruled that extending revocable permits on a "holdover" annual basis violated state law and said the land board's practice was inconsistent with the purpose of short-term permits.
In the wake of the measure's passage, officials with Alexander & Baldwin have promised to increase water availability.
"We are grateful for the passage of HB 2501, and commend the Legislature for recognizing the numerous beneficiaries in need of the temporary relief this bill provides," said Tran Chinery of Alexander & Baldwin.
"Contrary to what the opponents of this bill say, this bill is not just about A&B – the recent court decision threatens water used by farmers and ranchers across the state, as well as 36,000 Upcountry Maui residents and two neighbor island utilities using water to generate hydroelectricity."