WAILUKU – Nearly six months after recommending that Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. restore water to only one of 19 streams in East Maui, staffers for the state Commission on Water Resource Management have changed their minds – at the direction of balance-seeking commissioners in the heated controversy.
If commissioners follow the advice signed off by Deputy Director Ken Kawahara, HC&S will have to return water to a total of 14 of 27 streams in the East Maui watershed. Kawahara’s 64-page staff report advocates that six streams get some of their water back, totaling 10.46 million gallons a day.
The report was issued in time for a meeting at 1 p.m. Tuesday at the Paia Community Center, where a number of decisions could be made. It’s a continuation of a meeting held in December when commissioners asked the staff and different sides to come back with more information and new compromises.
Since the public will be given an opportunity to testify and all the sides are asked to give presentations about their own recommendations, two additional meetings are scheduled for June 16 and June 21. The last meetings drew more than 100 speakers a day.
Two years ago, the commission restored an average total of 4.5 mgd to eight of windward East Maui’s westernmost streams, so the total amount of water restored to East Maui streams could be 14.96 mgd.
Currently, HC&S diverts an average of 167 mgd from the 27 East Maui streams. HC&S uses the stream water, along with 72 mgd of well water, to cultivate roughly 30,000 acres of sugar cane fields.
The recommendation is a vast improvement, "a partial victory," said Native Hawaiian Legal Corp. attorney Alan Murakami. But it’s not enough, he said.
They want water restored to all the streams.
He said using figures HC&S gave the commission, he estimates that HC&S loses between 40 mgd and 60 mgd in its leaky ditches and reservoirs.
"I think they (the commission staffers) are deferring too much to the biggest diverter in the state, and they still haven’t shown how much water they’re really wasting," said Murakami, whose group helped bring the issue to the fore 10 years ago with petitions filed by taro farmers and environmentalists.
HC&S managers were not available for comment Sunday. But in the past, they have said that they spend millions on improving infrastructure and on new technology.
They also have said that a decision against them here – and in the separate Na Wai Eha stream water diversion case, where HC&S could lose another 35 mgd – may result in Hawaii’s last sugar producer closing and putting 800 Maui residents out of work.
In recent years, HC&S has had a series of far-below-average crop yields. And the company has lost $45 million in just the past two years.
There’s no reason to believe Tuesday won’t be yet another emotional and dizzyingly complex public debate.
The petitioners have said the 125-year-old stream divisions must end in order to create a constant flow from the mountains to the ocean and, in the process, allow taro growing to prosper – along with native plants and animals. It’s just the right thing to do, they’ve said.
Here are the streams and amounts of water the commission staff wants restored year-round in the eastern half of the watershed:
* East Wailuaiki Stream: 2.4 mgd; implemented in a year.
* West Wailuaiki Stream: 2.5 mgd; implemented in a year.
* Hanawai Stream: 0.06 mgd; implemented in a year; designed to create a "wetted path" to allow stream life to travel past the diversions.
* Makapipi Stream: 0.6 mgd; implemented in a year; however, it is uncertain if the water exists to achieve this goal, which is aimed at assisting taro farmers specifically.
* Waikamoi Stream: 2.8 mgd; implemented after the other recommendations go into effect.
* Waiohue Stream: 2.1 mgd; implemented at the same time as Waikamoi.
In the long-term, the staff also recommended that it should be allowed to work in coordination with HC&S and the U.S. Geological Survey to develop and implement a way to accurately record lost water in the ditches, tunnels and reservoirs. The parties should also provide regular updates to the commission and be responsible staff said.
It’s still uncertain whether the commission will restore stream water year-round or just during the rainy winter months.
The report states that there is almost no difference in the amount of rainfall or ditch flow in East Maui in the summer versus the rest of the year. But Central Maui, where the water goes to the fields often via open ditches, is hit hard by the heat.
The state Department of Land and Natural Resources Division of Aquatic Resources also weighed in and recommended restoring water to nine streams. Both state divisions did agree that restored water should be constant and at the streams’ mouths in order to best serve spawning aquatic life.
However, a development that could further complicate the issue is an HC&S announcement last month of a multimillion-dollar partnership with the federal government and University of Hawaii to look into turning the plantation and sugar mill into a biofuel farm and plant to serve Hawaii and the Navy.
Under the State Water Code, the commission must "weigh the importance of the present or potential instream values with the importance of the present or potential uses of water for noninstream purposes, including the economic impact of restricting such uses."
In the end, commissioners may place a lot of stock in what the staff has to say. After all, Chairman Laura Thielen also has said that the commission’s team of experts has been studying the issue for about 2 years now.