Ige accused of trying to bring back ‘zombie bill’ on contentious water rights issue

Ige accused of trying to bring back ‘zombie bill’ on contentious water rights issue
Gov. David Ige presented his State of the State address Tuesday before Hawaii lawmakers. (Image: Hawaii News Now)

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Gov. David Ige has taken the unusual step of asking lawmakers to revive a hotly-debated measure that many thought was dead for the session.

Known as the “water rights bill,” House Bill 1326 died in the state Senate and the deadline to revive it has passed.

The bill, which would extend temporary permits to divert water for farming, drinking and other uses, was one of the most contentious issues this session.

Many in the environmental and Native Hawaiian communities focused on the value of the bill to Alexander & Baldwin, which diverts more water than any other company in the state ― much of it to supply farm land in central Maui.

The governor’s administration says the bill does not only benefit Alexander & Baldwin, but it addresses the uncertainty for all water permit holders since their permits expire at the end of the year.

“Misinformation found its way into the public conversation and antagonism among law makers grew to the point that this important legislative measure was tabled,” Ige wrote, in a letter to lawmakers.

Accompanying the letter was a memo written by Ige’s administrative director Ford Fuchigamin, detailing what could happen to those with revocable water permits if the bill is not passed.

Fuchigami says along with impacts to Alexander and Baldwin’s water supply, farmers and ranchers on Kauai and the Big Island would lose the majority of their water source necessary for operations, as well as drinking water.

He also claims the utilities on those islands would have to replace hydro-power with other sources, likely fossil fuels

The governor’s letter was dated Thursday, and got swift reaction.

Critics call the bill a “bailout” and said the governor’s letter was caving to pressure from A&B and others who are resisting restoring natural streams.

“It’s a complete failure of leadership and vision on part of the governor and the office," said Isaac Moriwake, managing attorney at Earthjustice.

“It’s supremely disappointing that he’s trying to resurrect this zombie bill that ultimately benefits Alexander & Baldwin.”

Marti Townsend, director for Sierra Club Hawaii, says the administration’s position is legally mistaken and based on a false premise that a 2016 Circuit Court ruling relating to A&B water permits also applies to the smaller companies.

“The administration taking this approach is just creating fear, unnecessary fear among these nine other revocable permit holders who are trying to get access to water for their farming operations, ranching, utilities, and it’s just not necessary to go there,” Townsend said.

But others say the bill is needed.

“I think it needs to get done, otherwise all our water permits are in jeopardy come the end of the year," said Randy Cabral, Hawaii Farm Bureau president.

“There’s no guarantee we can continue to take water lawfully.”

The House says it’s up to the Senate to decide to revive the bill.

Senate President Ronald Kouchi’s response to the issue: “We will continue communicating and working with the governor and the administration on addressing this issue."

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