By TOM STEVENS, For The Maui News
POSTED: September 30, 2009
Amid all the chatter and bluster of isle politics, there arise from time to time truly historic occasions. One of those is coming down on Maui next month.
On Oct. 15, the state Commission on Water Resource Management will hear closing arguments on the future of the Central Maui watershed. The 9 a.m. contested case proceeding should pack the Iao Congregational Church’s Konda Hall, so interested citizens will want to get there early. No public testimony will be taken.
To draw attention to this fateful session, a public "river walk" will be held this Friday afternoon from Iao Valley to Market Street in Wailuku. At the end of the walk, the Native Intelligence store will host water rights speakers during Wailuku’s "First Friday" festivities. Later the same day, commission staff members will travel to the Paia Community Center to seek public input from 5 to 9 p.m. on East Maui water issues.
The contested case proceeding takes as its prologue a startling "proposed decision" the commission’s hearings officer issued in April. At that time, Lawrence Miike recommended that the commission partially restore the historic flows of Central Maui’s famous "four waters" – the Waihee, Waiehu, Iao and Waikapu streams.
Should the entire commission agree with Miike after hearing closing arguments, Wailuku Water Co. could be required to restore 5.4 million gallons per day to the streams known collectively as Na Wai Eha. If this happens, it could reverse more than a century of isle water use policy.
But that’s a very big if. Powerful business, political and labor interests want to see no change in Central Maui’s water allocation system – or at least no change that would limit future development options. They argue that any change in water distribution would imperil agriculture, employment, economic growth and affordable housing.
On the other side of the issue are taro farmers, advocates for Native Hawaiians, shore fishers and marine scientists who want "mauka-to-makai flows" restored to Na Wai Eha. They argue that bringing the four truncated streams back to life would have far-reaching ecological, cultural and economic benefits for all Mauians. Not least of these, they say: recharging the depleted Iao aquifer.
Water-wise, this is our "Chinatown."
Whatever the outcome, the commission’s Central Maui ruling likely will send ripples outward and into the future. Throughout Hawaii, dozens of once-viable freshwater streams have been dammed and diverted over the past 150 years to irrigate sugar, macadamia nuts, pineapple, coffee and other corporate crops.
Diversion systems have ranged from simple to highly sophisticated. The 5-mile aqueduct that carried mountain water to Kauai’s first sugar plantation in the mid-1800s simply had to sluice downhill. The three great ditch systems that girdle East Maui, on the other hand, are so cunningly engineered as to be marvels of hydrology.
As plantation-scale agriculture in Hawaii has diminished or departed altogether, state policymakers have had to ponder the reallocation of "surplus" water on at least three islands.
Locally, windward taro farmers have won partial water releases for some East Maui streams and are seeking to add more. Central Maui petitioners hope the state will make Wailuku Water Co. release some of its diverted water back into the four Na Wai Eha streams.
Opponents argue that with the Iao aquifer already at its estimated 20 million-gallon-per-day sustainable yield, water from the various stream diversion systems will be needed to sustain future economic growth.
I’ve lived in Hawaii long enough to know this state cherishes its status quo. Ninety-five times in a hundred, the expected thing happens – the corporations get their water; the developers get their zoning; the building trades get their projects; and government enlarges its tax take and patronage clout.
But every few decades, something jumps "out of the box." Hawaiian activists force the Navy to relinquish the "Target Island" of Kahoolawe. After a 14-year court fight, Makena’s Oneloa Beach becomes a state park rather than a second Kaanapali. Hey, ground has even been broken for the Lahaina bypass highway! It’s only taken, what? Forty years?
It wouldn’t surprise me if the Central Maui water reallocation process takes that long. The stakes are enormous. With the Iao aquifer’s output already over-promised, landowners, developers and politicians are thirstily eyeing the island’s stream diversion resources. These include an estimated 60 million to 70 million gallons per day of surface water coursing through the Wailuku Water Co. system and the far greater volume captured by the East Maui Irrigation Co. system.
Viewed in that context, the state water commission’s upcoming Na Wai Eha ruling will be one to watch. Hawaii’s history suggests the outcome will be business as usual, but I have a hunch this could be one of those weird exceptions.
There will be time to ponder all that during Friday’s stream walk, and to visualize mountain rain water running all the way to the sea.
* Tom Stevens is a freelance writer whose "Shave Ice" column appears every Wednesday. Send e-mail to him at email@example.com.