First it was in, then it was out, and now it’s back in again.

Alexander & Baldwin, the 145-year-old real estate developer and agriculture business, could be covered under House Bill 2501, a contentious water rights measure making its way through the Hawaii Legislature.

On Thursday, Sen. Mike Gabbard, the lead Senate conferee on the legislation, proposed to Rep. Ryan Yamane, Gabbard’s counterpart in the House of Representatives, to consider a Senate draft of the bill known as SD1.

Rep. Ryan Yamane is the House's lead conferee on House Bill 2501.

Rep. Ryan Yamane is the House’s lead conferee on House Bill 2501.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Yamane asked whether Gabbard meant Senate Draft 2 (or SD2), the latest version of the bill and the one that removed A&B from a three-year extension to lease water from the state while allowing 10 other companies that privilege.

Nope.

Gabbard said he meant the SD1. He also asked that $150,000 appropriated in SD2 for the Department of Land and Natural Resources to hire two full-time employees to help the agency with holdover water permits be included in SD1, with the dollar amount left blank.

Yamane and Gabbard agreed to meet again Friday to discuss HB 2501.

Afterward, Yamane and his staff confirmed that A&B was back in the equation, at least for now.

Support For East Maui

The development comes one day after A&B announced at the Capitol — with Yamane, Gabbard and other legislators standing in support with company President and CEO Chris Benjamin — that it will permanently restore as many as eight streams for taro farms in East Maui.

The move was described by lawmakers as a good “first step” toward resolving a longstanding dispute over water in East Maui, but environmentalists called it a “disingenuous attempt” to deflect attention from A&B’s intent to be covered under HB 2501.

“Wow, that was fast — enough to make my head spin,” said Marti Townsend, director of the Sierra Club of Hawaii and a consistent critic of A&B’s use of water. “We all knew that this was the play that had been lined up — and it’s happened very early in conference — but it’s by no means the final say on the bill.”

Townsend added, “We knew that A&B’s commitment to open stream diversification was timed to influence legislators’ vote on the this bill, and today’s discussion about the SD1 just proves it.”

Senator Mike Gabbard during Hawaiian Homelands hearing at the Capitol. 23 march 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Sen. Mike Gabbard is his chamber’s lead conferee on HB 2501 negotiations.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The proposed change to HB 2501 came on the same day that conferees on the state budget, House Bill 1700, added $1.5 million for a geographical survey of Hawaii streams, an “important component” of water issues currently pending, including those addressed in HB 2501, said House Finance Chair Sylvia Luke.

Luke, a lead conferee on HB 1700, also talked about funding positions related to the water rights bill. Later that afternoon, the Legislature issued a press release that explained $180,000 was budgeted for hydrologist and project development specialist positions for “public land management for the disposition of water rights lease management and oversight.”

The latest draft of HB 1700 — the SD1 — calls for appropriating $1.5 million to plan, design and build an irrigation and water delivery system “for agricultural enterprises and/or agricultural purposes” in East Maui and another $6.2 million to plan, design and construct a water system in the same region.

Yamane and three Maui lawmakers introduced HB 2501 to help A&B after a court ruled in January that the company’s diversion of East Maui streams for commercial agriculture in Central Maui was illegal.

Taro farmers and Native Hawaiian cultural practitioners who say they have been harmed by the stream diversion have sought administrative and legal relief.

The Sierra Club is among the parties that have argued the Legislature was trying to help A&B circumvent the legal action, which is currently under appeal.

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