Residents testifying at a Commission on Water Resource Management meeting also said it’s time for a new chapter in water management after the Maui fires.

A meeting of Hawaii’s Commission on Water Resource Management was dominated Tuesday by calls to reinstate a senior water official who was reassigned amid criticism over decisions made during the Aug. 8 Lahaina fire.

Kaleo Manuel was removed as deputy to the chair of the water resource management commission and transferred to another position within the Department of Land and Natural Resources. That decision came after questions were raised about his decision-making in delaying for five hours a request by West Maui Land Co. to divert stream water to company-owned reservoirs south of Lahaina as flames spread on Aug. 8.

CWRM Commission on Water Resource Management Meeting, Lahaina Water, DNLR
The Commission on Water Resource Management meeting drew many participants from Lahaina. (Courtesy: DLNR/2023)

At the time of his reassignment, the DLNR said the purpose of Manuel’s “redeployment” was to permit the commission and DLNR “to focus on the necessary work to assist the people of Maui recover from the devastation of wildfires.”

It said the move did not suggest that Manuel did anything wrong.

Commission Chair Dawn Chang, who also heads DLNR, said at the outset of Tuesday’s meeting that she wouldn’t address Manuel’s employment status.

“I know there is overwhelming support for Kaleo Manuel and many of you have questions. You might not like my response but I’m going to ask that you respect it. This is a personnel matter and I will not discuss a personnel matter in the public,” Chang said.

Dawn Chang chairs the Hawaii Commission on Water Resource Management. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

That didn’t stop testifiers from lining up to appeal to Chang and the commissioners to bring Manuel back to his senior post.

“You need to reinstate that man,” said Archie Kalepa, a Lahaina community activist. “You have the ability to make that happen.”

Manuel’s reassignment also has prompted a protest at the State Capitol and a lawsuit by two Maui residents, Kekai Keahi and Jennifer Kamaho‘i Mather, who say he was illegally removed.

Kalepa and others said trust has been broken between Maui’s Native Hawaiian community and the government because of the events that led to Manuel’s ouster. It is part of Attorney General Anne Lopez’s wide-ranging investigation into responses to the fire, which killed at least 97 people and destroyed some 2,200 structures.

Testifiers said that Manuel was made a scapegoat and he should be returned to his former position because he understood the cultural significance of water and the community’s dependence on it.

Many people spoke about West Maui’s fraught history of water management, starting with the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom, through the sugar and pineapple plantation era and in the recent decades with industrial-scale tourism, luxury resorts and so-called gentleman farming.

DLNR staff noted in a presentation before the public testimony that Maui County’s public water system accounts for less than 23% of total water use in the Lahaina area. The rest is controlled by private companies and designated for private use.

Kalepa and others said it’s time to chart a new course when it comes to water management in Lahaina, one that prioritizes public trust uses such as taro farming.

Tiare Lawrence talks with Honolulu Civil Beat Friday, Aug. 25, 2023, in Makawao. Lawrence has been elevated to head up a local, grass-roots effort of financial and community support. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
Tiare Lawrence, who has been active in promoting financial and community support for Lahaina, says it’s time to change the way water is managed on the Valley Isle. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

Lahaina surfer and community activist Tiare Lawrence said the ongoing struggle over water management in West Maui is well-documented. But times are changing, in her view, and Hawaii is in the midst of a new chapter in which the environment “is prioritized above corporate interests.”

She hopes the commission will take notice.

“I urge the commission to stop the insanity of building gentlemen estates and infinity pools under the guise of so-called fire suppression. Lahaina needs regenerative agriculture, wetland restoration and true workforce housing for generational residents,” Lawrence said.

Chang said she wanted to hold Tuesday’s meeting in Maui, but several kupuna and cultural practitioners advised her it was too soon. However, next month’s meeting is expected be held in Maui and several testifiers told Chang to expect hundreds of Lahaina residents to turn out.

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

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