The council is considering the additional applicants as DHHL scraps its initial recommendation of Jonathan Likeke Scheuer. 

A conflict over control of the new government entity charged with managing East Maui’s water is brewing among county and community leaders.

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Since early May, a group of Maui County Council members have been vetting citizens who want to steer the East Maui Community Water Authority, the first board of its kind in Hawaii. Voters on Maui, Molokai and Lanai created it last year when they chose to establish regional entities charged with taking over plantation-era water systems.

Under that law, the new authority is tasked with reclaiming oversight of stream water that for decades was controlled by a powerful sugar plantation owned by Alexander & Baldwin. The century-old water system and former cane fields are now managed by Mahi Pono, a farming company backed by one of Canada’s largest pension funds that has poured millions of dollars into buying water rights across the globe.

The window to apply for the East Maui board was previously open from December through April, but after facing pressure to reopen the process, council members decided late last month to give residents one more week to apply.

During their meeting Tuesday, council members discussed the five new applications — including from a longtime Keanae community member, an ex-Mahi Pono executive and former Mayor Alan Arakawa, who last year warned the water authority would halt new development and “kill Mahi Pono.” 

Alan Arakawa told council members during Tuesday’s meeting that his own cattle had died because of drought and water shortages. (Screenshot/Maui County/2023)

And in an abrupt change without public explanation, Department of Hawaiian Home Lands Director Kali Watson scrapped the department’s recommendation to tap water policy expert Jonathan Likeke Scheuer to represent DHHL’s interests on the East Maui board. Scheuer had been recommended in March by then-interim Director Ikaika Anderson, who wrote that Scheuer had served as “a well-trusted consultant for DHHL on water policy matters for several years.” 

“Why remove the recommendation for water expert Jonathan?” Mary Ann Pahukoa, whose family has long been fighting to restore East Maui stream water, asked during the meeting. She also questioned why there hadn’t been any consultation with DHHL beneficiaries.

It’s unclear why Watson suddenly rescinded Scheuer’s name. In multiple meetings since early May, the longtime DHHL consultant was supported by a number of East Maui community members who said they welcomed his expertise in Hawaii water law and knowledge of complex water systems.

In a June 12 letter, Watson wrote he was instead recommending Dwight Burns, the Maui representative for an arm of a construction union called the Operating Engineers Hawaii Industry Stabilization Fund. Burns is Native Hawaiian, and his family is from East Maui and has long farmed kalo there. 

Watson did not respond to requests seeking comment.

Some community members have been frustrated by the politics surrounding the selection of the new East Maui board. (Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022)

During Tuesday’s meeting, a few residents who’d been following the monthslong process to launch the new East Maui board raised alarms over DHHL’s sudden shift. They also urged council members to respect voters’ wishes by choosing community members who’d been involved since the start, rather than corporate representatives who applied late. 

“It would behoove you to support the kalo farmers and the peoples of the place — and not repeat history,” said Faith Chase, whose family has long lived and grown kalo in East Maui.

Before Mahi Pono took over, Alexander & Baldwin for more than a century pulled water from East Maui streams through a series of ditches and tunnels to irrigate the thirsty sugar cane fields in the central valley. By the 1990s, the plantation was using so much water that some streams ran dry. Local families then spent decades fighting in court to restore the water that for generations sustained their communities and kalo fields. 

The proposal put forward last year to give East Maui residents more say in water management was widely supported among voters across Maui, Molokai and Lanai.

The law spelled out that the new authority must be managed by an 11-member board, four of whom will be chosen by the mayor. The council vets the other seven members, one of whom is recommended by DHHL.

So far, around 20 people have applied for those spots. Council members spent Tuesday morning interviewing the late applicants, including Janet Redo of Keanae, the former Maui mayor and Darren Strand, who left Mahi Pono in November and now works for the Hawaii Farm Project.

Council members’ most pointed questions were directed at Arakawa and Strand, both of whom said they had initially opposed the proposal to create community water authorities. 

Darren Strand, who used to work for A&B and Mahi Pono, told council members that he would bring to the table direct knowledge of the former plantation’s East Maui water system. (Screenshot/Maui County/2022)

Arakawa told council members that he still has concerns about how the new government entity would work with the county’s existing water department and the state requirements. At the same time, however, he said that he’d bring a wealth of knowledge to the board because of his experience in politics, working with the county’s water department and raising cattle and hogs at his family’s farm in Kula.

“In order for us to be able to supply adequate water to the farmers, we’re going to have to have control of the systems to be able to deliver it,” explained Arakawa, who also said he had always advocated that the county buy private water systems.

But the stakes aren’t only high for those who rely on the water. In the sales agreement that paved the way for A&B to sell its former sugar lands to Mahi Pono, A&B promised it would repay Mahi Pono up to $62 million if it didn’t succeed in helping the new company hold onto the East Maui water leases that are controlled by the state.

According to his application, Strand worked for both A&B and Mahi Pono, serving on the team that helped transition the sugar plantation to Mahi Pono. Before that, he spent years running pineapple companies on Maui.

Asked whether he would be willing to address any potential conflicts of interest, Strand agreed and told council members that he “had a set of beliefs that were sometimes contrary” to his former employers’ goals.

“My particular background probably lends me to hold someone like Mahi Pono or A&B to account better than somebody that hasn’t been in those particular roles,” he said.

Council members are scheduled to continue the discussion and weigh all of the selections during a meeting on Monday.

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

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