After listening to dozens of people ranging from top county leaders to kalo farmers say why the state should — or shouldn’t — take an “unprecedented” step to more carefully manage water in West Maui, state officials on Tuesday moved to lay the groundwork to eventually decide who can use water there and how much they can take.

Maui County locator map

For the first time in its history, the Hawaii Commission on Water Resource Management put forward its own proposal — and then acted on it — to designate a community as a “surface and ground water management area.” Up until now, that’s only ever happened after community groups went through the tedious process to press the state to enact such protections.

That means if scientists believe that a community’s water supply might be in danger, the state can decide who’s allowed to use water and how much. In West Maui, officials say, some communities are already pushing beyond what some streams and sources of underground water can bear.

“We are feeling the effects of climate change and this climate crisis,” said Kaleo Manuel, deputy director for the Commission on Water Resource Management. “We do need to act swiftly and make bold decisions.”

State officials heard more than six hours of testimony on Tuesday. Screenshot/2022

Tuesday’s unanimous decision to regulate how much water is taken out of streams and pumped from wells from Ukumehame to Honokohau came after six-plus hours of testimony. More than 180 people also sent in written feedback for the meeting, some of whom did so at the urging of private water companies who’d emailed their customers, directing them to tell state officials to hold off on the decision that they warned could stall development, including affordable housing.

Others questioned whether the state would have the bandwidth to take on the new responsibilities, and if the move would send some people who wanted to dig wells or use stream water into years of legal battles. Jeff Ueoka, who spoke on behalf of Maui Land & Pineapple Company, cautioned: “There’s that saying, you know: ‘Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting.’”

But for many others, like those who’ve studied threats to Hawaii’s water supply and longtime West Maui residents, some of whose families have farmed kalo there for generations, the move was long overdue. They celebrated it as a momentous shift from the status quo, away from a system that for nearly a century allowed plantations and large landowners to suck streams dry and mismanage Maui’s most precious resource.

“For over 125 years … plantation interests and economic interests have been fighting with small farmers, Native Hawaiian and local interests over who controls West Maui’s water resources,” said Jonathan Likeke Scheuer, who spoke in support of the move on behalf of the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands.

“What the commission ultimately did today is to democratize the process,” he said.

A photo of taro growing in the Kauaula Valley
Families in West Maui have fought against large landowners for years to keep water in streams. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

Tuesday’s decision also indicates the public will get the chance in the future to weigh in whenever someone asks to pump water from the ground or take it from streams in that designated area. Currently, permits to build wells are usually treated like construction permits; as long as applicants meet all the legal requirements, government agency staff can approve them without public input.

If a community’s water supply might be “threatened,” Hawaii law says the Commission on Water Resource Management “shall” start managing the water there. That’s already the case in some parts of West Maui, according to state officials, and scientists say things might only get worse in the decades to come.

“We have neighbors growing subsistence food competing with their neighbors that grow lawns,” said Ayron Strauch, who studies the supply of water for the state. “And that is a conflict that is not going to go away in a region that’s going to be drier and drier.”

A photo of the a development above Launiupoko
Community members have been concerned that there isn’t enough water to support all the proposed development in West Maui. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

Some large landowners and county leaders, however, questioned whether the state will have the manpower to process the wave of permits expected to come in the future. Maui County officials on Tuesday asked the commission to hold off on more closely regulating water across West Maui, saying they disagreed with some of the state’s data and weren’t given enough time to weigh in.

Eva Blumenstein, who oversees water planning for Maui County, said the county could instead serve as the agency tasked with bringing everyone to the table to plan out ways to protect future water supplies in West Maui, if it were given the time to do so.

“It’s not stalling,” she said. “This is an opportunity to actually get to do this — and we can do this on a local level.”

But state officials pointed out a problem: Maui County has limited authority over the actions of private water companies, which control the vast majority of water that supplies homes and businesses in West Maui.

“We need to start now and collaborate further as we go along,” said Department of Land and Natural Resources Director Suzanne Case, who’s also chair of the Commission on Water Resource Management. “Because this discussion has been around for many years.”

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation and the Fred Baldwin Memorial Foundation.

Civil Beat’s coverage of climate change is supported by the Environmental Funders Group of the Hawaii Community Foundation, Marisla Fund of the Hawaii Community Foundation and the Frost Family Foundation. 

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