The state panel heard passionate testimony from Lahaina residents and many others during its first meeting on the island since the Aug. 8 tragedy.

Hundreds of people, many wearing red Lahaina Strong shirts, packed a Wailuku auditorium on Tuesday to demand changes in the way water is allocated in West Maui.

Those who appeared before the state Commission on Water Resource Management included survivors of the Aug. 8 wildfire that leveled much of Lahaina and killed at least 99 people.

It was the first time the seven-member panel had met on Maui since the fire, and residents came with plenty to say during the nine-hour meeting.

Hundreds of people attended a Commission on Water Resource Management meeting in Wailuku, many wearing Lahaina Strong shirts. (Paula Dobbyn/Civil Beat/2023).

The commission ultimately took no action, but Chair Dawn Chang said she understood the “extreme frustration” that many people feel about how water resources are managed in West Maui.

Several said it’s time to restore water to West Maui’s historic wetlands and fishponds and that the fire should serve as a major wakeup call to how the resource is managed.

“This is a great opportunity to hit the reset button,” said Ke’eaumoku Kapu, cultural programs coordinator with Na ’Aikane o Maui, a nonprofit that lost its cultural center to the fire.

Many testifiers told the commission they’re tired of having to repeat the same thing: Water should flow freely from mauka to makai instead of being diverted for resorts, high-end subdivisions and other uses that primarily benefit the financially privileged.

Commission on Water Resource Management Deputy Director Kaleo Manuel, left, conferred with Commission Chair Dawn Chang during the meeting Tuesday. It was his first meeting back after being temporarily reassigned to another division following questions over how he handled water allocation the day of the fire. (Paula Dobbyn/Civil Beat/2023)

“This state has an obligation to protect, control and regulate the use of Hawaii’s water resource for the benefit of the people,” said Makamae Alipio, 17, a junior at Ke Kula Kaiapuni Kekaulike, a Hawaiian immersion school.

“Filling private reservoirs, gentleman’s estate swimming pools and watering golf courses — I don’t believe any of these benefit our people,” she said.

From left, Kaiulani Pa’a, Makamae Alipio and Kehaulani Kealoha-Franco are students who testified at the commission meeting. (Paula Dobbyn/Civil Beat/2023)

Alipio, who lost her home in the fire, was among a large group of students who turned out at Tuesday’s meeting at J. Walter Cameron Center. Like others in the audience, they pleaded for changes in water management so that increased flow can reach public users, including taro farmers and families on kuleana lands.

“I stand here devastated that this is still happening, devastated that our kanaka continue to struggle for water, for our aina, to simply survive in our home,” said classmate Kehaulani Kealoha-Franco, 17.

The meeting began with a resounding round of applause and a warm welcome back for Kaleo Manuel, the commission’s popular first deputy who was reassigned from his duties on Aug. 16 amid questions about how he handled water allocation on the day the wildfire tore through Lahaina.

Attorney General Anne Lopez conducted an investigation and he was reinstated on Oct. 9.

Testifier after testifier thanked the commission for bringing Manuel back and several asked for an apology.

Ke’eaumoku Kapu of Na ‘Aikane o Maui led a pule at the start of a meeting of the Commission on Water Resource Management. (Paula Dobbyn/Civil Beat/2023)

“This community deserves an explanation and more importantly a public apology to Kaleo Manuel, his ohana and supporters and our entire community for dragging us through that during an extremely difficult time for us,” said Kanoe Steward.  

Commissioner Neil Hannahs said he was glad Manuel was back on the job and he was impressed by how the community strongly protested how Manuel was treated.

“I’ve never seen such an outpouring of support for a public official,” Hannahs said.

Manuel gave some updates about the status of fire-damaged wells in Lahaina but he didn’t speak about what he had been through. Several audience members said during breaks in the meeting that Manuel received death threats and was subjected to vicious trolling on social media during his redeployment.

“As the commission moves forward, you must rebuild the trust with our community that was lost when Kaleo Manuel was redeployed. You can do that by issuing an apology, clearing his name and prioritizing the needs of the aina and the working class people of Lahaina over corporate interests,” said Pedro Martinez, in written testimony.

Kanoe Steward asked the commission to apologize for redeploying Kaleo Manuel. (Paula Dobbyn/Civil Beat/2023)

“Now is the chance for us to reimagine the future of Lahaina while using what the Hawaiians always knew as sustainable maintenance of the land,” he said.

The commission took no formal action at Tuesday’s meeting. Nor did it issue any apology.

During closing minutes of the meeting, Chang said that she felt it was important to hold Tuesday’s meeting on Maui.

“We owe it to the people,” she said.

Last week, Chang and commission staff conducted a site visit to the Kaua’ula Stream system in West Maui, part of the Lahaina aquifer.

She thanked local families she met with for showing her “a great deal of hospitality and respect.”

She said she won’t make any guarantees about what will happen going forward but that “we are going to do our best.”

The commission’s next meeting is scheduled for Nov. 21 in Honolulu. It will be broadcast live on YouTube.

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