After Maui County residents voted in November to create new government entities charged with managing the islands’ water resources and taking over plantation-era water systems, county leaders are paving the way for the first community water authority to be up and running by next summer.

Maui County locator map

Earlier this month, Maui County Council member Shane Sinenci, whose office spearheaded the effort to give voters the chance to create the new water management entities, put out a call for citizens to apply for the board that will oversee the brand-new East Maui Community Water Authority. The authority in East Maui is the first of its kind established after about 33,600 Maui County residents voted in favor of a charter amendment that gives their local government the power to create such regional entities across Maui, Molokai and Lanai in the future.

“Ola i ka wai, water is life, has never been as important as it is now,” Sinenci said in the news release announcing recruitment for the board.

Even though it’s been less than six weeks since voters approved the proposal to establish the East Maui authority, there’s already been talk about forming one in Central Maui. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

The goal behind the proposal was to give local communities more oversight of Maui’s most precious natural resource. Members of the boards overseeing the water authorities will have control over hiring and firing the director in charge of each authority, rather than the mayor. The boards, made up largely of citizens from the regions they serve, can also look at coming up with plans to protect and manage watersheds, in hopes of growing the supply of water for generations to come.

The push to give communities more local control comes as fights over Maui’s water — or the lack of it — have come into sharp focus as the island grapples with the competing pressures of less rainfall, the threats of climate change and a push for more development. Earlier this fall, Fodor’s Travel, a tourism publication, named Maui as one of 10 destinations on its 2023 list of places that tourists should reconsider visiting. The reason: Maui ranked among destinations throughout the globe that Fodor’s said are “immediately and dramatically impacted by water crises.”

During a meeting Thursday that in part focused on water in East Maui, some council members brought up concerns about issues in other communities, ranging from the lack of water flowing in Central Maui streams to how government agencies were forced to use stream water in West Maui to fight a massive fire that erupted last month, temporarily leaving families who rely on the stream without a supply.

A brush fire scorched land above Launiupoko in November. Maui Fire Dept. Facebook

Even though it’s been less than six weeks since voters approved the proposal to establish the East Maui authority, there’s already been talk about forming one in Central Maui to help oversee Na Wai Eha, a system of streams known as the “Four Great Waters” that for decades were depleted by a plantation. Earlier this year, the county tried to purchase the Wailuku Water Co.’s plantation-era system that taps the streams, but the negotiations stalled because the company said the county wasn’t serious enough in the negotiations, Maui Now reported.

Some council members are once again revisiting what it might take to buy that system — a proposal that also has support from the state, which has money set aside to purchase land in the area for conservation. Some community members hope that, if the public pushes for it, the county can establish a water authority there with an aim to buy and manage the privately owned system.

“There is common interest among the community, the state, and I believe this council to see all of this system actually brought into the 21st century and managed well so that it can serve the water system for Maui County,” Lucienne de Naie, a longtime conservation advocate, told council members at a recent meeting.

“It does need a good modern day look, and it does need a redesign,” she continued. “And it does need to be in public control.”

In the meantime, some county officials are also charging forward with a plan to more closely manage water in East Maui, a goal laid out in the proposal passed by voters in November. The charter amendment called for creating the East Maui Community Water Authority to pursue a 30-year lease from the state for water that flows through streams that for decades were sucked dry to feed a sugar plantation.

In Hawaii, water is subject to the public trust doctrine, which means the state is responsible for protecting it for the benefit of all its citizens. Water rights can’t be bought or sold here, but the state does allow companies to lease it. In East Maui, the state for decades allowed Alexander & Baldwin to tap stream water to feed its sugar plantations. Although the state in recent years has taken drastic steps to keep more water flowing in the streams, it still permits East Maui Irrigation — which is now co-owned by both A&B and Mahi Pono, the company that bought the former sugarcane lands — to use the water coming from state-owned land.

Mahi Pono planted fields of oranges on old sugarcane land along Haleakala Highway on Maui. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

The new East Maui water authority is tasked with trying to take over the state’s long-term lease and explore ways to find federal grant money to improve the century-old system and protect the region’s water supply.

Gina Young, an executive assistant in Sinenci’s office who worked on the proposal, said that she’s hopeful that the water authority board will be formed by early spring so that members can work on hiring a director by the summer.

Although it could take a year or more to negotiate securing the state water lease, Young said county officials in the next several months will push to hire grant writers to look for funding for the East Maui water authority’s projects. The authority itself will be steered by an 11-member board, eight of whom must be residents of the communities where the water comes from.

“This is a grassroots, community-driven effort, as opposed to a top-down, government creates it,” said Young. “And that’s what will make it so successful, because everybody wants it. They’re invested in it. They’re willing to take on the responsibility to make it work.”

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

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