Hawaiian Commercial and Sugar Co. is in the middle of a controversial hearing process over water rights in central Maui. The company says it won’t survive if the state water commission returns water from its irrigation system to streams.

On May 28, Civil Beat published a story titled “What Rules Maui Water, Law or Sugar?” that discussed the water battle and the potential for the company to use its power to secure water rights even as it transitions away from water-thirsty sugar as its crop.

The article included the company’s point of view. After it was published, HC&S General Manager Chris Benjamin became available for an interview and we spoke for nearly an hour by telephone. He answered questions about HC&S’s water needs and the company’s hope of transitioning from sugar to biofuels. He said the Na Wai Eha case is “a key determinant of long-term sustainability in Hawaii” from both a food and energy standpoint.

And because Benjamin is also the chief financial officer of HC&S parent company Alexander and Baldwin, he was able to talk a little bit about broader development issues in Central Maui and the struggle to keep the sugar business viable in the short-term.

The full 45-minute conversation, transcribed and lightly edited for readability, weighed in at more than 5,000 words. I encourage you to read it, as Benjamin sheds light on a number of important topics, but here’s a short wrap-up if you are pressed for time.

MICHAEL LEVINE: Are there assurances or investments that can make the community feel like you guys were looking for water for sugar purposes and not water just to have the water? Is the idea that you’re getting it for sugar purposes?

CHRIS BENJAMIN: Absolutely. That I can’t state emphatically enough. I think that the whole notion of using water for other purposes — and I’m not going to get into the Wailuku Water situation because that’s not us and I can’t speak for them — but the notion of using water for other purposes is a red herring. First there is a basic issue of permits. Regardless of what happens with the interim in-stream flow standard setting, there is a permit process that you have to go through to utilize the water for any purpose. And if that purpose is no longer a valid purpose, you’ve got to go back and get permits.

ML: I’m not pointing the finger and saying it’s intentional, but somebody could argue that now is a good time for HC&S to have that in-stream flow standard established. You have a lot of factors on your side that may not be on your side in five years or 10 years. What would you say to that?

CB: One thing is it’s an interim in-stream flow standard. So if at some point in the future, we needed less water, the commission has the ability to come back and review. I’m not a lawyer, but my understanding is that the reason it’s called an interim in-stream flow standard is that it is not a permanent decision.

ML: One thing I wanted to ask you, point blank. Have there been discussions at HC&S or at Alexander and Baldwin for potential other uses for this land like real estate or urbanizing development or turning it into a water company like Wailuku? Have there been discussions like that?

CB: Absolutely not. Land development is obviously one of our business strategies We have 180 acres (near Maui Business Park) that A&B has recently received entitlements for. That took over 15 years to get 180 acres entitled. We have 35,000 acres of sugar cane land. The dent that could be made in your lifetime or my lifetime in that land for entitlement purposes and development is really very modest. So I think that again the notion of going and someday converting all this land into homes or whatever, I don’t think people that make those comments understand the magnitude of this farm.

To read the full interview, click here. To read Civil Beat’s coverage of the fight for the Na Wai Eha streams, click here.

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