‘Make things right’: Activists accuse state of exploiting wildfire crisis to weaken water protections

Anger and sorrow poured out today as Native Hawaiians from Maui accused state officials of exploiting the fire tragedy... to weaken protections for streams.
Published: Sep. 20, 2023 at 6:26 AM HST|Updated: Sep. 20, 2023 at 2:16 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Anger and sorrow poured out Tuesday as Native Hawaiians from Maui accused the Green Administration of exploiting the island’s devastating wildfires to weaken protections for natural streams.

It was the first meeting of the state Commission on Water Resource Management since its respected Deputy Kaleo Manuel, was reassigned after being wrongly accused of withholding water needed for firefighting.

The turnout of Maui residents at the Kalanimoku Building — headquarters of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources in Honolulu — illustrated the bitterness that still exists over state water management decisions made, while the Lahaina fires were still smoking.

Lahaina resident Karen Kanekoa struggled to begin her testimony.

“Today, today our Lahaina is gone ... as we knew it,” she said.


Tiare Lawrence said water advocates were forced to “fight off land speculators and water grabbers,” while dealing with the trauma of lost homes, friends and family.

“I am upset to be here today because I should be at home, delivering donations and preparing for a funeral this weekend for my dear cousin,” Lawrence said.

State Land and Natural Resources Chair Dawn Chang expressed appreciation for the turnout.

“You’re dealing with your own loss ... but you come here because this issue is so important,” Chang said.

But Chang didn’t give them what they wanted, which was the reinstatement of reassigned Deputy Director for water Kaleo Manuel.

He was removed after a West Maui Land Company complained that he didn’t immediately approve diverting water to a reservoir the day of the fire — even though the water would not have been of any use that day.

Officially, the Land Department is referring questions about Manuel to the state Attorney General, who is investigating decisions by state and county officials during the fires.

Like many others, West Maui resident Kalamaehu Takahashi laid the responsibility for Manuel’s removal on Gov. Green.

“The most shocking but not surprising part of all of this was the role the governor’s affiliates played in the aftermath in the climate calamity that they are directly responsible for in this disaster,” Takahashi said.

But Chang did not escape blame, either.

“Chair Chang you bite the bait and you listened,” Kanekoa said. “You listen to the crying money pockets of those capitalist greedy private developers.”

Commissioners also expressed disappointment with Manuel’s departure.

Aurora Kagawa-Viviana said she was speaking with frustration, that Manuel had been removed based on letters from West Maui Water — which had violated water rules before.

Lawsuit filed over reassignment of state water regulator in wake of Maui wildfire

“It was hugely disturbing and made me physically sick to see those letters,” she said.

Commissioner Neil Hannahs also endorsed Manuel and urged Chang to get through the personnel evaluation quickly, after hearing the commission faces 100 applications from West Maui.

“Consider that and the testimony we are receiving that, number one, we are understaffed, and number two, he was very competent in his work,” Hannahs said. “That’s what leaves the public so perplexed as to why he’s not there.”

The hearing exposed how the water debate in West Maui is heated now more than ever.

It pits development and tourism interests against Native Hawaiians and environmentalists who want water returned to streams for traditional farming and to restore the once-water-rich and fire-resistant environment.

Several pointed out that the clean slate created by the fires is an opening to reconstruct the watersheds of the bone-dry region, where fires were fueled by invasive, drought-dry foliage on fallow sugar lands.

“Now we have a prime opportunity to make things right, now that our town is no longer here,” said kuleana farmer Keeaumoku Kapu.

Lawrence said, “There is hope that the ecosystem and the kanaka flourish together once more.”

The hope of many who attended the meeting is that the fires teach the state a lesson: That the health of its natural water systems are essential not just for the environment, but for public safety.