VIDEO: Decision Deferred in Debate Over East Maui Water

By Wendy Osher

A decision on the heated debate over water rights in east Maui will wait.  That’s the decision state commission members made today as they deferred action on stream flow recommendations at 19 east Maui streams.

On one side, taro farmers and subsistence users are fighting for cultural rights while employees at the state’s last sugar mill are fighting for their livelihood and jobs in a clearly slowed economy.

A full day of testimony concluded yesterday, but not without incident. The meeting was called into recess when Kahu Charles Kauluwehi Maxwell Sr. demanded time to fully express his thoughts on the issue.

Maxwell was among a list of more than 100 people who signed up to speak before the commission.  Testimony resumed well into the evening with those on both sides of the issue airing their concerns.  Activist Walter Ritte Jr. of Molokai also expressed frustration over the approach that he said focused on science instead of culture.

Attorney Alan Murakami with the Native Hawaiian Legal Corp. spoke on behalf of the group Na Moku Aupuni O koolau Hui, which filed the original petition to amend interim instream flow standards at a total of 27 East Maui streams.  A decision on eight of those streams was made last year, with the remaining waterways being the focus of current discussion.

Honopou Resident and life-long taro farmer Beatrice Kepani Kekahuna was among three residents listed on the original petition who are fighting not only for water rights, but for the continuance a lifestyle that some argue is being threatened by continued water diversions.

Kekahuna’s neice, and fellow Honopou resident, Lynn Scott said that although restorations were made to a portion of the Honopou stream last year, her family continues to struggle in maintaining a consistent source of water.

Meantime, workers and executives with Hawaiian Commercial and Sugar Company expressed the need for maintaining stream flows to their crops in central Maui.  HC&S general Manager Chris Benjamin was among those who testified.

Others in the agricultural industry also voiced support for the staff recommendation to keep flows at status quo in all but one of the 19 remaining streams.  Sandra Kunimoto, the chair of the department of agriculture, and Warren Watanabe, Executive Director of the Maui County Farm Bureau noted the importance of the island’s agricultural industry.

In addition to the benefits of keeping Maui green, Michael Ribao, Manager of the power supply at Maui Electric Company spoke of the indirect benefits of sugar production on the island’s clean energy supply.

With many families and businesses feeling the impact of a slow economy, the potential impacts of lost water to HC&S and the rippling impact on its workforce were among the areas of concern. We spoke with Willie Kennison, the Maui Division Director of the ILWU Local 142.

The State Commission on Water Resource Managementdeffered immediate action on the recommendations and plans to revisit the issue in three months.

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