Need to Return Plantation Water

SUBHEAD: Sugar plantation told by state water commission to restore water to Maui streams. Image above: East Maui Irrigation Company ditch at Twin Falls removes water from natural streambed. From ( By Staff on 27 May 20210 for the Associated Press - (

Hawaii's last sugar plantation on Wednesday grudgingly accepted and Native Hawaiian residents swiftly rejected a water commission ruling ordering the restoration of water to six East Maui streams, some of it on a seasonal basis.

The action came a day after the state's water commission voted to order Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar to return water to the streams to improve habitat for native plants and animals and to provide Hawaiians in the area with water to farm taro.

The ruling addresses a decade-long legal dispute between the plantation and Native Hawaiians living at the base of the East Maui mountains where HC&S has been diverting water for its fields since the late 1800s.

Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar General Manager Chris Benjamin called the ruling "another bite from the apple," noting the commission two years ago ordered the plantation to give up millions of gallons a day from eight other streams. He said the decision would lead to "another sizable reduction in its access to water."

Yet Benjamin said in a statement that "we appreciate" commissioners recognized that the company needed more water during the summer and allowed for a seasonal restoration of stream water.

HC&S says it needs the water to survive, warning that 800 employees could lose their jobs if it goes out of business.

Alan Murakami, an attorney for Native Hawaiian complainants, said he would challenge the ruling.

Murakami had asked the commission to restore water to 19 East Maui streams, but the panel left the status quo in place for 13 of the streams. The decision would hurt Hawaiian traditions and practices, he said.

"They will certainly have less habitats from which to gather, and estuaries from which to fish, both of which are critical to the survival of the Hawaiian culture on that coastline," Murakami said.

He accused the water commission of failing to adequately consider Native Hawaiians' rights to the water and only taking into account HC&S' arguments about the important role the company plays in the local economy.

"It's simply outrageous -- the lack of understanding of their public trust duties and the degree to which they're supposed to adhere to them," Murakami said.

The company began diverting water from East Maui to irrigate sugar cane fields in the central part of the island in 1876.

The company uses East Maui stream and well water to irrigate about 30,000 acres in the Central Maui valley. The plantation, one of Maui's biggest employers, indirectly supports dozens of vendors such as heavy equipment and fuel providers.

Native Hawaiians have relied on East Maui's streams to fish and farm taro for hundreds of years.

The commission ordered some water to be restored to Makapipi and Hanawi streams year-round.

It voted to restore some water to four streams -- Waikamoi, West and East Wailuaiki and Waiohue -- only in the wet season.

Murakami argued the company could restore more water to the streams without jeopardizing its business by lining reservoirs to prevent water seepage and otherwise reducing water waste.

The company has said it had already invested in steps to prevent water waste.


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