STILL LEFT OUT TO DRY
At the same time, coalitions of community groups have grown increasingly disillusioned with the water commission, which has been portrayed as having an aggressive indifference to traditional and customary rights of Native Hawaiians when making its decisions.
Just ask Alan Murakami, an attorney with the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation, who has been a pivotal figure in efforts to address the wrongs done to Native Hawaiian farmers in East Maui. In fact, he has generated positive headlines for his success in legally blocking decades-long leases to a subsidiary of Alexander & Baldwin that wanted to divert billions of gallons of East Maui stream water for sugar cane irrigation.
“There are challenges with the composition of the water commission, the central agency to regulate all water in Hawai’i,” Murakami said. “The majority of the commissioners are tied to major land owners, which raises red flags about appointments. And every water commissioner is supposed to have substantial water management experience.
“But that standard has not been applied, leading to a situation where you have a lot of people who have a background in the use and exploitation of water,” Murakami said. “We’ve had six reversals of water commission decisions, raising questions about whether the commission is being composed of people who are qualified under the statute.”
The state water commission declined comment through a spokesperson.
Even so, the hard truth about the Water Commission is it has allowed the Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company to divert more water than it needed from East Maui streams at the expense of traditional and customary Hawaiian practices, Murakami said.
“The state constitution protects these practices,” Murakami said. “But the struggle since 2001 has been to try to get the commission on water resource management to put back enough water into streams to respect these practices. What we’re asking for is not unreasonable.”
The Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company uses an average of 164 million gallons a day, Murakami said.
By comparison, the entire island of Oahu — with 80 percent of the state’s population — typically consumes an average of 160 million gallons of water a day.
“So on Maui, one company is able to divert as much as all of Oahu,” Murakami said, adding that the company is wasting up to 23 million gallons a day through leaks in its irrigation system.
“The water we are asking to be restored is less than what these companies waste,” Murakami said. “You can’t tell me that our request is unreasonable. But politics and economics appear to trump the law.”
Edward Wendt is among the taro farmers in East Maui who has voiced frustration with the water commission, criticizing the seven-member panel for nurturing doubts about its commitment to properly enforce laws and questioning whether it could ever earn his trust.
“I’m hopeful that day will come soon,” Wendt said. “But right now it hurts hard. We don’t trust the water commission and we have justification for that. It has allowed private corporations to make money off a public trust and that is wrong. People are paying the price for our water resources being taken and sold off for profit.”
His sentiment is echoed by Kyle Nakanelua, an East Maui taro farmer, who characterized the perceived bias of the water commission as a serious problem for a state that, ironically, is focused on reducing its incredible dependence on imported food while hurting taro farmers who could help protect and strengthen local agriculture.
“It’s ludicrous that we have to fight for water,” Nakanelua said. “It’s crazy that we have to fight for something that has always been available. But instead of helping the people, the water commission would rather help friends that are building hotels and golf courses.”