Wednesday’s announcement by Alexander & Baldwin that it will permanently restore some streams for taro farms in East Maui was hailed by some legislative leaders — in particular, ones from Maui — as a critical first step in healing a wound inflicted over a century ago.

But environmental groups and Native Hawaiian interests say A&B and the Hawaii Legislature are merely “throwing the farmers a bone” by making a “piecemeal return” of waters that does not fundamentally resolve A&B’s continued illegal diversion of waters for its agricultural needs.

The conflicting interpretations came on the same day that a contentious water rights bill was to be heard in conference committee at the Capitol.

The lead House and Senate conferees participated in the A&B press conference — or “staged event,” as the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation deemed it — just hours before House Bill 2501 was to be considered.

Alexander Baldwin President CEO Chris Benjamin makes a point during press conference announcing restoration of water to upcountry Maui. 20 april 2016.
Alexander & Baldwin President and CEO Chris Benjamin said the company will permanently restore some streams in East Maui. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

HB 2501’s introduction was prompted by an Oahu judge’s January ruling that struck down a state Land Board pattern of renewing A&B permits to continue diverting the Maui water. Judge Rhonda Nishimura determined that the Department of Land and Natural Resources, which has been issuing one-year revocable permits to A&B, violated state law.

When asked if the bill could still be amended to allow the company to continue leasing water rights, House Speaker Joe Souki said, “That will be for the conferees to decide.”

Souki is one of the co-sponsors of the measure, which was authored by Rep. Ryan Yamane, the lead House conferee.

Chris Benjamin, A&B president and CEO, reiterated at the press conference that the closure of the company’s last sugar mill on Maui was regrettable but also an opportunity to transition its business in diversified agriculture in Central Maui.

Representative Ryan Yamane responds during Alexander & Baldwin’s announcement of returning water to upcountry Maui. 20 april 2016.
State Rep. Ryan Yamane called conference committee proceedings on House Bill 2501 “tricky.” Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Even as it provides for the full restoration of an estimated seven to eight streams, it would continue to participate in what’s known as “interim in-stream flow standard” processing of other streams. The state Land Board earlier this month instructed A&B to commence an environmental review process for the company’s application for lease of water from other areas in East Maui.

Benjamin was vague on exactly how much water would be involved in the restoration. He also said A&B was still working on its diversified agriculture plan and could share little more — including how much water might be required for the plan.

But Benjamin insisted the agricultural lands would be used only for farming purposes and said that the water use would likely not be as high as it was for harvesting sugar.

Souki, who represents Maui, applauded A&B for moving in “a positive way” to restore some stream flows, and for acknowledging the “change in landscape and change in times” brought on by the close of the sugar plantation at the end of this year. He cautioned, though, that there was “still a lot of work to do and details to be ironed out.”

Speaker Joseph Souki responds to media’s question about any information on conference committee on HB 2501 A&B ’s announcement on restoration on water to upcountry Maui. 20 april 2016
Speaker Joe Souki said it was up to House and Senate conferees to decide whether A&B will be include in House Bill 2501 regarding water leases. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Senate Majority Leader Kalani English, whose district includes East and Upcountry Maui, said Wednesday was “a special day” because waters would finally flow after more than 100 years.

“What’s very important is it begins the healing and reconciliation process that my family in Hana, my own people, need, because for generations we have had this inbred into us, this idea that the water was taken from our family without proper consultation, without just compensation,” he said. “This begins the process.”

As for HB 2501, Yamane said conference committee “is always tricky,” and that the House and Senate would need to look at the “pros and cons” of what each chamber requested. He and Sen. Mike Gabbard, the other lead conferee, expressed hope that a “middle ground” would be charted, but gave no details, other than to say some issues could be addressed in the state budget.

Rep. Ryan Yamane and Sen. Mike Gabbard met Wednesday on HB 2501 but reached no agreement.
Gabbard, left, and Yamane, in red shirt, met Wednesday on HB 2501 but reached no agreement. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

UPDATE: When the conferees met later Wednesday, virtually nothing happened. Still, the House of Representatives immediately issued a press release titled “Representatives Propose Using House Version Of Bill To Advance Discussion On Maui Water Rights.”

Translation: The House rejected the Senate version of HB 2501, which is very different from the last House version, suggesting the two sides are apart.

‘History Repeats Itself’

Meanwhile, in an earlier press release, the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation, which has represented taro farmers, took the long view:

“Over one hundred years ago, shrewd and politically-savvy sugar barons acquired control of vast amounts of land and resources to exploit for their commercial enterprises. … Today, history repeats itself, as A&B has once again used its clout to entice certain Hawaii state legislators and agencies to defy — even collude to overturn — a court order declaring A&B’s East Maui diversion of any streams flowing across 33,000 acres of state ceded lands for its commercial enterprise to be illegal.”

The press release pointed out that no East Maui taro farmer participated in the press conference.

“It is a sad testament to the level of trust between our community and A&B and the state when the only conclusion we can draw after hearing their announcement is that it is a disingenuous attempt to deflect attention from A&B’s and these politicians’ true intention to put A&B back into House Bill 2501,” said Mahealani Wendt, an East Maui resident and taro farmer. “If this is, in fact, the case, we call upon Governor Ige to veto the bill should it be passed by the legislature.”

Alexander Baldwin President CEO Chris Benjamin listens to response and statement by Senator Kalani English after A&B announced restoration of water to upcountry Maui. 20 april 2016.
A&B’s Chris Benjamin listens as state Sen. Kalani English says the return of some water use in East Maui makes for “a special day.” Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Marti Townsend, director of the Sierra Club of Hawaii, was at the Capitol press availability.

“I’m glad to see that Alexander & Baldwin is beginning to recognize their role in the legacy of injustice in East Maui, and this is, as many of the legislators said, a good first step,” she said. “But it doesn’t really fix anything. It’s important to note that as it stands right now A&B has no legal right to divert water from East Maui. They don’t have permits, they don’t have in-stream flow standards, and they haven’t done an (environmental impact statement). And if it were any other diverter, you would allow the water to flow through the streams until a need to divert has been demonstrated.”

Townsend warned that A&B had made promises to taro farmers in the past that were not kept. She compared A&B’s announcement Wednesday to someone stealing a wallet full of money and then returning it but with only the photographs left inside.

“Ultimately, what everyone’s looking for — what we’re looking to — is a fair application of the law as opposed to special treatment. … This is about the diversion of a public trust resource for private profit making, and we need to make sure the public instead is protected.”

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