- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 26, 2016

HONOLULU (AP) - Kamalani Pahukoa said her family would be able to farm all of their taro patches in Keanae if streams flowing to east Maui are restored.

Right now, the streams are currently being diverted, Pahukoa said. Her family has been growing taro - a Native Hawaiian food staple - for decades, but they has been forced cut back on farming because there’s not enough water, she said.

“As farmers, you can’t live or farm without water,” Pahukoa said. “We’re fighting for our land.”

Pahukoa was one of about 100 protesters gathered outside of land owner Alexander & Baldwin’s offices Tuesday to rally against a bill to allow companies and other water-rights holders to continue diverting water from Maui streams. The company owns Hawaii’s last remaining sugar plantation.

The debate over Maui’s water rights started over a century ago when plantations started diverting water from lush east Maui through a system of ditches to irrigate arid sugar cane land. But with Alexander & Baldwin set to stop sugar operations at the end of the year, opponents say the company is just trying to hold onto water rights while it sucks the island dry of a public resource that many hope to restore dry stream beds.

The Hawaii bill was introduced after a Hawaii judge found that Alexander & Baldwin’s water diversion permits were invalid. The most recent version of the bill would allow companies with pending applications for long-term permits to continue diverting water for up to three years.

Lawmakers came to an agreement on the bill shortly after Alexander & Baldwin announced it would permanently restore water to eight east Maui streams. The bill now awaits a floor vote by lawmakers for it to become law.

Opponents of the bill say the sugar company is trying to sidestep the judge’s decision. Alexander & Baldwin opted to change the law, instead of the more common option of asking the court to wait to enforce the ruling, which is being appealed, said Marti Townsend of the Sierra Club of Hawaii.

“They’re using this old-style, old-boy, party politics to influence public policy for all of Hawaii,” Townsend said.

Alexander & Baldwin said in a statement that the bill is a reasonable solution to “significant problems caused by an unexpected judicial decision.” Without the bill passing, the company won’t access state water, which could limit agriculture on Maui, according to Alexander & Baldwin.

“We will not divert any water that isn’t needed for agricultural uses, and already have returned a significant amount of water to the streams,” the company said in a statement. “But if we have no water then diversified agriculture will not be possible.”

Alexander & Baldwin is Hawaii’s fourth-largest private land owner. The company has been growing sugar for over 140 years, but it plans to shift gears and pursue diversified agriculture for its 36,000-acre plantation on Maui.

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