A dispute over whether DLNR balked at releasing water to land owners played out in an exchange of angry letters in the days after the fire.

Glenn Tremble had concerns even when the West Maui fires were declared to be contained on the morning of Aug. 8.

An executive with West Maui Land Co., which operates land development and private water companies near Lahaina, Tremble was worried that fires could spark up again due to downed power lines, high winds and low reservoir levels.

Letters obtained by Civil Beat Tuesday detail Tremble’s actions to get more water for Maui firefighters already battling the Lahaina blaze. The letters along with interviews with water users and advocates underscore the long-simmering dispute over who should have priority for Maui’s coveted water supply and how it should be used.

Around 1 p.m. on Aug. 8, Tremble reached out to the state Commission on Water Resource Management, which oversees how owners of water sources such as wells can use the water in areas deemed water management areas.

West Maui is such an area. Tremble voiced his worries about the fires and requested state approval to divert more water from nearby streams to company reservoirs. He would then offer the water to the Maui Fire Department to fight the fires, which by then had reignited.

A line of abandoned vehicles serve as a testament to the speed of the Lahaina fire that moved through the town on Aug. 8. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

It took five tense hours for Tremble to get the requested approvals. But by then, it was too late, Tremble said in a letter the day after the fire to Kaleo Manuel, a deputy director of the Department of Land and Natural Resources who oversees water resource management. The fires had cut off access to the equipment needed to let more water to flow into the reservoirs, Tremble wrote. 

“We watched the devastation unfold around us without the ability to help,” he wrote. “We anxiously awaited the morning knowing that we could have made more water available to MFD if our request had been immediately approved.”

Incident During Fire Reflects Larger Conflicts

The commission’s delay in responding to West Maui Land Co. is one element in a wide-ranging investigation by Hawaii Attorney General Anne Lopez into responses to the fire that destroyed the town of Lahaina and killed at least 106 people.

Gov. Josh Green on Monday candidly spoke about conflicts over water in Hawaii, saying some people don’t want to use publicly managed water to fight fires.

But the tension over whether to allow West Maui Land Co. to use more water is only part – and some say a small part – of the story. 

“No one’s trying to oppose the use of water to fight fires,” said Isaac Moriwake, an attorney with Earthjustice. “That was unfair for the governor to go there.”

The real issue, Moriwake said, is that West Maui Land Co. is trying to use the fire as an excuse to gain control over the region’s water supply.

Moriwake points out that Hawaii Board of Land and Natural Resources Chair Dawn Chang has agreed to amend — temporarily — several water regulations, at West Maui Land Co.’s request, pursuant to an emergency declaration related to the fire issued by Green. That included a provision allowing companies like West Maui Land to fill its reservoirs when fire was reported in the area.

“They should stop trying to use this tragedy for cheap advantage,” Moriwake said.

But Tremble said in an interview Tuesday that Moriwake was way off base, that it’s important to have access to water to fight fires. He invited Moriwake to sit down and talk.

“We invite him to meet with us and to visit West Maui to view the devastation and hear the heartbreaking stories before he offers his opinions,” Tremble said in a text message.

Waipio Valley lo'i or taro patch.
Water is vital to Native Hawaiian agriculture, including the traditional cultivation of kalo, or taro. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

Moriwake isn’t so sure. In fact he said, one issue is whether the water would have done any good if West Maui Land had gotten the water when it requested it, at 1 p.m. on Aug. 8.

According to Tremble’s letter, Manuel’s division delayed its approval because it wanted to know whether a downstream user’s taro patch would be affected by the reduction of water supply.

West Maui and had already tried in vain to reach the taro farmer, Tremble said. The area is south of Lahaina.

Hawaii Sen. Gil Keith-Agaran has sponsored legislation to ensure water managed by DLNR could be used to fight fires. But he questions whether water from West Maui Land Co.’s reservoirs could have been used to fight last week’s blaze, given wind gusts up to 60 miles per hour that were fanning the flames. Helicopters that would normally be able to pick up water from the reservoirs and dump it on the fires couldn’t be used, he said.

“It would have been a good tool to have in normal conditions but not in the kind of winds we had,” Keith-Agaran said.

In his letter to Manuel, Tremble conceded it’s not clear having the water would have helped but said it would be better to err on the side of caution and cooperation during an emergency.

“We cannot know whether filling our reservoirs at 1:00 p.m. (as opposed to not at all) would have changed the headlines when dawn broke on our weary first responders and heartbroken community,” he wrote. “We know that fires spread quickly. We know that we need to act faster during an emergency. We know that the community we serve relies on the water as a defense from spreading fire. We know that we must have water available for MFD before MFD needs it. We know we can do better. We’re all in this together.”

Dawn Chang, chair of the Hawaii Board of Land and Natural Resources, questioned blaming Kaleo Manuel, a deputy director in charge of water resource management, for not approving the use of water to fight fires. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Moriwake and others also weren’t happy that Tremble appeared to blame Manuel for the delay.

Moriwake said the deputy director doesn’t have the authority to unilaterally approve the release of the water to use for firefighting.

Manuel’s boss, Board of Land and Natural Resources Chair Dawn Chang, also defended Manuel. In a letter to Tremble, she wrote: “I am very sorry for your personal loss and the loss of this community. I’m sure you did not mean to imply that Deputy Manuel was responsible for the devastation that unfolded as we are devastated with the unprecedented and unpredictable events that overwhelmed the community of Lahaina and West Maui.”

In an Aug. 12 letter, Tremble said the blame had rested not with Manuel, but rather the process of approving the release of more water. He wrote that Chang’s order to amend regulations during the state of emergency set things right.

“We would never imply responsibility on his part,” he said of Manuel. “Our words were born in anguish for the loss and frustration over the process to provide water to MFD and to the community. Process should serve people. On Tuesday, process failed all of us. Your decision has helped put things back in the right order.”

If there was a sign of overreach by West Maui Land Co. in its correspondence with Chang, Moriwake said, it came at the end of that letter. The company asked Chang to suspend and modify West Maui’s designation as a water management area.

Moriwake said it signaled that West Maui Land Co. wants to turn the area into a “Wild Wild West” of water conflicts.

“This private water company is using this opening to ask the Water Commission to get out of its business,” he said.

Tremble was unapologetic. He said the current era of climate change and wild fires requires changing the way water should be used.

“I would love to see it gone,” he said of the designation. “But this needs to be addressed. The dynamics have changed. It’s a fire-prone area. What is the priority?”

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

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