WAIHEE – At its mouth, the Waihee River was only around a foot deep Monday afternoon – but that was good news to Scott Fisher of the Maui Coastal Land Trust.
Fisher was monitoring conditions in the first hours after Wailuku Water Co. restored water to the river, carrying out the terms of an order by the state Commission on Water Resource Management in June that the company return 12.5 million gallons per day to two of the four streams that make up Na Wai Eha.
Fisher said the water in the river was at about the same level it would typically be during the rainy season, and it was noticeably colder than it would normally be on a mid-August day. The water restoration would almost certainly mean healthier plants and animals in Waihee River, he said.
Wailuku Water Co., which diverts the stream for users including Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co., had opened some of its diversion gates at Waiehu Stream on Monday as well.
Commission member Dr. Lawrence Miike, who oversaw the contested case hearing, originally recommended that half of Na Wai Eha’s water be returned to all four streams. But the other commissioners did not agree and no water was returned to the Iao and Waikapu streams below their diversion points, while less water than he recommended was returned to Waihee and Waiehu streams.
Earthjustice has appealed the decision, saying it doesn’t go far enough.
But the day was not without controversy and conflict, said Earthjustice attorney Isaac Moriwake and Wailuku Water Co. President Avery Chumbley.
Moriwake accused Wailuku Water Co. of not fulfilling its obligations under the water commission order and threatening Native Hawaiian taro farmers’ long-held rights to fresh water for their taro patches.
Meanwhile, Chumbley said his company will fully comply with the order. It was just the first day, he said, and adjustments will be made to make sure the correct amount of water goes into the stream.
As for the kuleana farmers, Chumbley said, yes, the restoration of water to the stream could result in less water for their taro patches. But he said he never threatened them, only alerted them to “unintended consequences” of the water commission order – that they, along with every other Wailuku Water Co. customer, may have less water as a result of the state’s order.
“It’s really unfortunate,” Chumbley said. “It’s sour apples, and they’re not giving the commission time to implement things.”
Attorneys for Earthjustice, representing the groups Hui O Na Wai Eha and Maui Tomorrow, and members of the state water commission monitored the release of water Monday. Moriwake said another Earthjustice lawyer, Kapua Sproat, watched Wailuku Water Co. refuse to open its Waihee River water diversion gate farther, as requested by Department of Land and Natural Resources staff.
“Things got really ugly,” Moriwake said. “The commission staff treated Wailuku Water with kid gloves. . . . It was bureaucracy at its worst.”
Under the ruling, the commission was supposed to make certain that 10 mgd be restored to Waihee River at Spreckels Ditch. But Moriwake said that Chumbley and his staff returned only 4.8 mgd at that spot.
Eventually, 6 mgd is supposed to reach the ocean at the Waihee River mouth, according to a DLNR news release.
Chumbley said the state’s order calls for a specified amount of water to be measured within the rivers and streams themselves – not at the diversion gates. He said Wailuku Water Co. would measure water levels again today, after the rivers and streams have had time to adjust.
DLNR Chairwoman Laura Thielen said she was aware of some disagreements from the two sides over the release but didn’t have the details because she had been out of the country until Monday. She said the commission had its own concerns about how to correctly implement its Na Wai Eha decision, since the hearings officer in the case had focused on HC&S’s role instead of Wailuku Water Co., which actually controls the diversions.
On the kuleana issue, Moriwake said that Chumbley asked for a six-month delay in executing the restoration, or Wailuku Water would not continue to guarantee water service to dozens of Native Hawaiian kuleana taro farmers along Waihee and Waiehu. Moriwake said that a half dozen taro farmers started contacting him in a panic on Wednesday after they had received phone calls from Wailuku Water Co. that they’d lose their water.
“I think I would rather have the water in the stream, but if it’s not enough to raise kalo, than I want it (water) in the pipe,” said Diannah Goo, 75, a Waihee kuleana taro farmer with 12 taro patches, fed by a waterline from the company.
Moriwake said that the kuleana land owners have had an understanding of first rights to the stream water since long before the sugar plantations came in and diverted streams with aqueducts, ditches and pipes to irrigate their crops. Maui County and HC&S also support continued water flow to kuleana farmers, Moriwake said.
In order to get accurate information on the situation, Chumbley recommended that the kuleana users contact the Commission on Water Resource Management directly. The region has also previously been designated as a state surface water management area, so all stream users must apply anyway with the commission for water permits, Chumbley noted.
Earlier in the day, Sproat said they’d had some “hiccups” during the first stream restoration. But she said at the time that “everybody is doing their best.”
The commission also ordered Wailuku Water Co. to restore 1.6 mgd at Waiehu North and 0.9 at Waiehu South streams, with 0.6 mgd flowing into the ocean at the combined streams’ mouth in Kahului off of Waiehu Beach Road.
As he left the Waihee Valley Road diversion point on Monday afternoon, Chumbley said that the physical process of returning water to the stream was simple and only required “opening up some control gates.” He then hopped into a waiting truck that was part of a caravan headed to the Waiehu North and Waiehu South stream diversion gates.
HC&S General Manager Chris Benjamin on Monday said that the reduction of available surface water “will make our business more challenging, as will the additional expense.”
The company has lost $45 million over the past few years due to a long drought, higher businesses expenses, such as fuel costs, and poor sugar prices.
But the company announced a partnership this summer with the federal government and University of Hawaii to potentially switch to grow crops to produce biodiesel for the Navy as well as residents.
“We are working diligently to evaluate the potential for bioenergy and believe that many jobs, the green open space that defines Central Maui, and Maui’s best chance for creating sustainable, alternative sources of energy depend on our ability to remain in business,” Benjamin said.