A dispute over water rights that dominated the last legislative session is expected to continue Friday at a Board of Land and Natural Resources hearing.

The Sierra Club and other groups are urging the board to deny Alexander & Baldwin and its subsidiary, East Maui Irrigation Co., renewal of permits to divert stream water in East Maui.

They accuse A&B of wanting to continue to “control a public resource just to make private profits,” as they argued in an email alert this week to supporters.

With the expected closure of another of its subsidiaries, Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar, later this month, A&B doesn’t have a use for the water, the Sierra Club says.

Karen Murray holds a sign in opposition to SB2051 in the Capitol rotunda. 3 may 2016
Karen Murray held a sign in opposition to legislation aiding A&B during the last legislative session. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“There will be no more sugar plantation in Central Maui, and nothing is being grown there in its place,” said Marti Townsend, director of the Sierra Club of Hawaii.

Diversion of the water by A&B has happened for decades to the detriment of Native Hawaiian and other taro farmers in East Maui.

A&B has said the permits are needed to ensure the continued operation of the East Maui Irrigation ditch system, which the company said is “essential” to provide water for its 35,000 Upcountry Maui residents and farmers.

The water also eases the transition of sugar fields to diversified agricultural crops, “thus keeping the Central Maui isthmus in agriculture and open space,” the company said in an emailed statement. “We believe these uses are in the public interest.”

Alexander Baldwin Chris Benjamin and right, Senator Kalani English share a moment after press conference. HB2501. maui water. 20 april 2016
Alexander & Baldwin President and CEO Chris Benjamin with Maui Sen. Kalani English after a press conference on East Maui water at the Capitol in April. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

A&B also has a new law on its side, Act 126, which allows it to ask the land board for the permits if certain conditions are met.

Crafted by powerful Maui legislators, the law allows the company three more years of holdover status for pre-existing water permits as long as it is “consistent with the public trust doctrine.” A&B said it hopes the land board will find the permits “to be consistent” with the doctrine and grant them the extension.

Current pending applications before the land board are covered under the law. It also requires an annual report to the Department of Land and Natural Resources through 2020.

As for what it needs the water for, A&B said this:

Our water use has decreased over the course of the year, with the ramp down of our sugar operations. We are only diverting what we need, and water we don’t need remains in the stream. However, as we pursue new agricultural uses for the lands, we need assurance of the continued availability of water.

The company said that HC&S is engaged in bioenergy crop trials of sorghum, corn and oilseed crops as well as “expanded acreage of cultivated pasture for livestock.” It says it is also asking Maui County to establish “a sizable agricultural park, on prime agricultural land, for small farmers.”

Townsend said that A&B can continue to service Upcountry Maui without diverting streams. In her view, what the company is really trying to do is keep Central Maui property values high for potential sale or development.

A&B did not respond to accusations of pecuniary interest. Instead, it stressed diversified ag expansion.

A call to arms making the rounds this week.
A call to arms making the rounds this week. 

“To achieve this, it will be essential that prospective farmers have assurance that there could be an affordable source of irrigation water, to support their investment in new agricultural activities,” the company said.

The 146-year-old company has interests in real estate development, commercial real estate, agriculture, natural materials and infrastructure construction.

The Sierra Club and its allies are asking supporters to submit testimony to the land board by Thursday afternoon’s deadline, and to show up in force Friday morning at the hearing.

While the water permits item is not listed until later in the day on the board’s agenda, the Sierra Club told Civil Beat it hopes the item will be moved to the top of the agenda for the meeting that begins at 9 a.m. in order to accommodate A&B opponents flying to Oahu from the neighbor islands.

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