By CHRIS HAMILTON, Staff Writer
State Commission on Water Resource Management Chairwoman Laura Thielen on Friday called the panel’s decision last week to put millions of gallons of water a day back into East Maui’s streams "groundbreaking."
For more than 125 years, Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. has diverted water from the East Maui watershed for its sugar cane cultivation in Central Maui. Maui County also uses stream water to supply 10,000 customers Upcountry, including farmers and ranchers.
In a statement issued by the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, which Thielen also heads, she called Tuesday’s 5-1 vote during a Paia meeting "a flexible approach that meets most of the needs of competing water demands."
The commission’s decision also "strongly emphasized responsible management of public trust resources," Thielen said. For the first time, HC&S must monitor and report water in its irrigation system to the state. And Maui County must fix its leaky Waikamoi flume within three years, a process already under way.
"Maui County and HC&S need to make the necessary investments to repair existing infrastructure and to develop responsible and reliable alternative water sources to meet their critical domestic and agricultural water needs," Thielen said.
However, both the county and East Maui taro farmers, who petitioned the commission for the stream-flow restorations, said they supported the state revisiting the compromise in a contested case hearing. Their requests for binding arbitration appear to come from opposing viewpoints.
The county Department of Water Supply said that the commissioners’ decision to restore water in the wet season but not as much during the dry months still jeopardized its customers, who have been hit hard by the ongoing drought.
The petitioners, represented by the Native Hawaiian Legal Corp., said the decision to restore water to six of 19 East Maui streams does not restore enough water to revitalize aquatic life year round. They also said last week that the commission did not hold HC&S accountable enough for water wasted in the company’s aging and leaky reservoir and ditch systems.
In December 2008, the commission bifurcated the 2001 petitions that totaled 27 East Maui streams. Commission members restored 12.21 million gallons a day to eight streams two years ago.
On Friday, Thielen said the commission ordered an annual, or year-round, restoration of water to two streams, Hanawi and Makapipi, totaling 0.66 million gallons a day.
In the wet season, from November to April, commissioners restored a total of 8.6 mgd to the Waikamoi, West Wailuaiki, East Wailuaiki and Waiohue streams. And in the dry season, from May to October, the commission restored 0.45 mgd to those four streams.
The commission continued the current diversion levels on the remaining 13 streams. East Maui Irrigation, an HC&S subsidiary, often diverts stream water with grated concrete trenches that channel water across the island to Central Maui.
The county gets 85 percent of its water for Upcountry from the Waikamoi stream, and it opposed putting its share back into the stream.
"The seasonal restoration will benefit Hawaii’s stream resources, estuarine waters and fish nurseries in the ocean and support agricultural operations," Thielen said. "This new seasonal approach balances the needs of the resources and the demands of off-stream users (HC&S and Maui County) where all interests share the bounty during the wet seasons and share the limits in the dry seasons."
Commissioners also stated that Maui County needs to develop alternative water sources, conservation and reclamation of water supplies, Thielen said.
"Due to long-term drought, this is a precarious position for the people of Maui, and the county needs to shift the balance of water supply to more reliable sources that do not come at the expense of Hawaii’s resources and downstream users of these same waters," Thielen said.
The commission also ordered HC&S to document and address reservoir system loss of water to reduce waste, she said. The commission mandated HC&S to provide annual public reports documenting the actual uses of all East Maui surface waters "to maintain accountability and transparency for the public to be assured the water remains in agricultural use," Thielen said.
For its part, HC&S has expressed a combination of thanks for the seasonal considerations along with a warning to the commission, which still must decide how much water to return to Na Wai Eha, or the four streams of Iao, Waihee, Waikapu and Waiehu.
The struggling company has said that taking away access to more surface water, especially in a time of drought, could threaten its financial viability as well as new federally funded plans to perhaps transform Hawaii’s last sugar producer into an energy farm to grow biofuels.