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Lucienne de Naie is not happy. The longtime East Maui resident flew all the way to Oahu to try and convince a state board to stop Alexander & Baldwin from diverting water from East Maui streams.
But the Board of Land and Natural Resources voted unanimously Thursday to continue allowing the company to divert up to 80 million gallons of water per day for the next year.
“The state should be a champion for the people to care for the watershed and be asking A&B to help pay for that and help make it happen,” de Naie said outside the BLNR building in downtown Honolulu after the hearing.
“Do I sound mad? I’m mad.”
She was one of dozens who waited for hours to testify and hear the board’s decision, the latest step in a multiyear fight over who controls Maui water.
Alexander & Baldwin is the fourth largest private landowner in Hawaii and has been a huge political and economic force in the islands for over a century.
De Naie and other Maui residents have been fighting the company’s practice of diverting streams since 2001, contending that it harms the environment and prevents Native Hawaiians from engaging in traditional practices.
In January 2016, a judge ruled that A&B shouldn’t have diverted millions of gallons of water since 2001. State lawmakers responded that year by passing legislation to allow the company to keep doing so, subject to annual permits.
A&B and its many supporters testified that the water is essential to ensure that the company’s land remains in agriculture and help serve numerous farmers, residents and businesses who rely on it.
De Naie said the decision doesn’t make sense when the company only uses 20 millions of gallons per day due to the collapse of the sugar industry and that the company hasn’t fulfilled its promises to restore certain streams.
Last year, A&B shut down the state’s last sugar plantation, throwing the future of 36,000 acres of land owned by the company on Maui into question.
Rick Volner, A&B’s general manager for diversified agriculture, said Tuesday that the company has met with about 200 parties interested in farming on the land.
About 4,500 acres out of the 36,000 acres of former sugar land has been shifted to other uses, including ranching, cultivating a bean tree for seeds that can be turned into biofuel and growing non-genetically modified sorgum for energy production.
The company is involved in active negotiation for leases on some 15,000 more acres, which have the potential for coffee production and other beverage crops.
Volner also said A&B has restored 95 percent of the streams that the state previously required the company to restore.
Many people who testified Thursday were longtime Maui residents, farmers and representatives of organizations who rely on A&B for water or hope to farm on the land.
Tom Rodriguez from Kihei spoke on behalf of the group Go Maui. He said continuation of the permit is very important to Maui residents who want A&B’s land to stay in agriculture rather than be developed.
“Cancellation of the permits will create uncertainty,” he said, which could affect financing for small farming operations.
Dave Taylor, head of the Maui Board of Water Supply, predicted dire consequences if the state did not approve the permit because the county relies on some of the water to provide fire protection and service homes and businesses.
“It will be a public health crisis,” he warned.
But David Kimo Frankel, an attorney who has litigated water rights issues said the state also has a legal right to the water.
“There’s no crisis,” Frankel said. “You can continue allowing water to go to the county.”
Frankel urged the BLNR to reject the permit application because there’s not enough information about how much water A&B pumped last year and how much they actually need next year.
He asked the BLNR to require A&B to fund a staff position to monitor the stream diversions.
Board members did say that they would revisit their decision once the state Water Commission issues a decision about the stream diversions.
A&B is also in the process of drawing up a draft environmental impact statement that would give the public a chance to comment on the topic.