Amid forecasts of less available water, officials want to ensure food producers have enough for their crops and livestock.

With summer almost here and the threat of drought looming once again, the Maui County Council is looking for ways to ensure that local farmers and ranchers have enough water for crops and livestock, even when the community as a whole grapples with shortages. 

Maui County locator map

During their meeting Thursday, council members took the first step toward passing three new laws aimed at tackling challenges that farmers and ranchers across Maui, Molokai and Lanai face when securing water and paying monthly bills. Forecasters are predicting that drought could hit the islands hard by later this summer, fueling the risk of wildfire.

Right now, when residents across Maui County are ordered to conserve water, farmers and ranchers are exempt for only 90 days. So extending that to 180 days is among the council’s proposals, with the hope of staving off the dire consequences that arise when there isn’t enough water to feed plants and animals.  

“Any restrictions always arrive right at harvest time, right at the time you need the water the most,” said Sydney Smith, a coffee grower who was testifying on behalf of Maui’s Agriculture Working Group. “You think there’s a pending restriction coming and that all your hard work is going to die before you can harvest it.” 

Molokai Ranch cattle roam around the top of the road leading towards the Mokio Preserve on the west side of Molokai.
Last year, the drought was so bad that former Gov. David Ige declared a disaster in Maui County. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

During Thursday’s meeting, Smith detailed how the group of farmers and ranchers had been pushing for some of the changes for roughly a decade. 

Another measure moving forward aims to lower water bills for landowners who only use their properties for farming. Right now, all agricultural property owners pay the same household water rates, even if there’s no house.

And the council has also proposed giving both property owners and their tenants a written warning if the county was looking to take away a property’s water meter because of an unpaid bill. Currently, that notice is only sent to the person on the water account, which county officials and farmers say could hurt kupuna who lease their lands to young farmers but might not otherwise be aware of unpaid bills.

When council and community members tried to make those changes previously, water department officials shot them down. Things have changed, however, since the start of this year, when Mayor Richard Bissen chose a new leader for the water department, John Stufflebean, who has more than 40 years of experience. 

“Previous water directors have told us that it’s impossible, but Director Stufflebean said it’s not impossible,” Smith told council members. “We were really happy to hear the department of ‘no can’ became the department of ‘yes we can.’”

Maui County officials want to make sure farmers have enough water to continue growing food during times of drought. (Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022)

During Thursday’s meeting, all three proposals were met with widespread support from the county departments of water supply and agriculture, the Maui County Farm Bureau, farmers, ranchers and all council members in attendance — a level of consensus rare in Maui County politics. 

“We had the same conversation last year, and now it’s 180 degrees in the opposite direction,” Council member Tamara Paltin said of the water department’s support. 

  • ‘Hawaii Grown’ Special Series

The residents who grow Maui’s food, especially those in Upcountry communities hit hardest by drought, have welcomed the change. In recent years, the island made national headlines when only Upcountry residents were ordered to conserve water or face $500 fines, but not resort communities in Wailea.

That’s all because of the way Maui’s water systems were built decades ago. The section of the system serving resorts year-round is totally separate from the section serving Upcountry, parts of which are decades older and much more vulnerable to drought.

During Thursday’s meeting, Annette Niles, a farmer and rancher, told council members that it’s always been tough to raise cattle and grow food in Maui County. But it is only getting harder, and they need help.

“Now we’re coming up to summer,” Niles said. “We got to pray we’re going to get some rain.”

The Agriculture, Diversification, Environment and Public Transportation Committee’s approval Thursday sends the proposals on to the full council for a final vote. The council’s next meeting is June 23.

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

Hawaii Grown” is funded in part by grants from Ulupono Fund at the Hawaii Community Foundation and the Frost Family Foundation.

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