PUUNENE – Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. General Manager Chris Benjamin characterized last week’s long-awaited state decision on Na Wai Eha stream waters as a reprieve, rather than a victory, for the plantation struggling for survival.
On Thursday, the state Commission on Water Resource Management ordered 12.5 million gallons of water per day to no longer be diverted from West Maui Mountain streams, also called Na Wai Eha, or the "Four Great Streams."
That amount to be returned was only about a third of what had been proposed by Dr. Lawrence Miike, a commissioner and the contested hearings officer for the ongoing water dispute.
"I would say that the commission’s decision is nuanced," Benjamin said. "I would not use the word ‘victory.’ The reality is we still lost a significant amount of water for a plantation that lost $45 million over the last couple years because of low crop yields (due to drought conditions).
"It’s a setback in that respect, but relative to the initial recommendation, it’s a dramatic improvement," Benjamin said. "In the long term, at least this gives us hope when we’re just trying to stay in business."
He tallied up the impact of recent water commission rulings on East and West Maui surface water diversions and said: "That puts us back about 30 million gallons a day . . . Any water that is taken away from agriculture certainly hurts the business. But I think you have a decision that demonstrates the commission’s desire to create some balance."
Benjamin said he realizes the water panel’s decision will likely face further legal challenges, and he acknowledged that will create some uncertainty for the future.
In January, the A&B board considered shutting down sugar operations on Maui, which would have put about 800 HC&S employees out of work. The board said the company could not continue sustaining losses like the $40 million hit it had taken over two years from growing sugar on Maui.
But the board decided to maintain sugar cultivation, at least until the end of this year, adding that the water commission’s decision on stream water diversions would be an important factor in whether sugar would continue on the Valley Isle.
Benjamin said he hopes the water panel’s decision will help the plantation remain in business, at least in the short term. Aside from having greater clarity on the water situations in Na Wai Eha and East Maui, HC&S also has been having some positive results with this year’s crop yields and relatively good sugar prices.
The board is expected to reassess HC&S’ future in December.
"My hope is we’ll earn the right to prove we can make the business sustainable," Benjamin said.
HC&S also recently announced a federal and University of Hawaii partnership in which the U.S. Department of Agriculture will contribute $4 million annually for the next several years to determine if it’s feasible to transform the aging sugar plantation and mill into a state-of-the-art biofuel production facility.
"We are finalizing the work plan right now," Benjamin said.
HC&S officials are looking at ways to enhance soil quality to get larger sugar yields, find new fertilizers, investigate alternative crops and better utilize water, he said.
"We are trying to make sure that our research roadmap gets the best people working on these critical steps," Benjamin said.
As for when the stream water will be restored, he said that depends mostly on the outcome of planned meetings with the water commission. But HC&S will cooperate fully and meet every deadline, he pledged.
The process is complicated, though, Benjamin said, because HC&S will need to address problems with leaking in the Waiale reservoir and create an infrastructure to put water back into the streams at diversion points.
The commission’s decision was well received by at least some HC&S employees.
"I think the workers are thankful for the decision," said Kelly Ruidas, an HC&S mechanic and International Longshore & Warehouse Union Local 142 member.
Ruidas helped lead a grass-roots effort by HC&S employees to let the public and commissioners understand how important the company’s 800 full-time jobs are to the community.
The employees held demonstrations and testified at commission hearings, often sharing personal stories of gratitude and dependence on HC&S. Often, generations of families were employed by Hawaii’s last sugar producer.
"I think the commissioners are starting to realize the impacts that Miike’s proposal would have had ripple effects felt across the county," Ruidas said.
He also said he was fully aware that the decision could be overturned by the courts.
"I’m feeling good," said Garrett Hew, an executive with HC&S and its subsidiary, East Maui Irrigation. "Number one, I still have a job."