The Politics of Water
Most Mauians are aware of the fact our county faces water restrictions that limit our community's ability to grow. These restrictions are enforced by the highly contentious "Show Me the Water" bill, which requires prospective developers to produce verifiable documentation of how they plan to provide water for a given project before being allowed to proceed.
Water, water everywhere (and it’s fresh too!)
Fresh water on Maui is by and large supplied by two sources: the East Maui Watershed and West Maui’s Na Wai Eha streams and aquifers. The East Maui Watershed produces 60 billion gallons of water a year. The Iao and Waihe’e Aquifers supply 75 percent of water pumped for municipal use on Maui. These Aquifers are regenerated by Waihee River and the Iao, Waiehu, and Waikapu streams, collectively referred to as Na Wai ‘Eha or the “Four Great Waters”.
First and foremost, let me make one thing clear: Water is not a scarce resource on Maui. US Geological Survey water resource records indicate that the island of Maui has an available fresh water supply amounting to exactly one-half of the entire state’s fresh water resources. Out of 312.82 million gallons per day (mgd) available on Maui, the county’s municipal water supply (including all residents and commercial businesses that do not have a private water source) amounts to roughly 36.93 mgd, only 11.80 percent of the island’s total water usage.
So if it’s not going to our county’s residents and businesses, the question remains: where does Maui’s water go? It may come as a surprise that the answer to this question is not so much related to “showing the water”, so to speak, but in exposing the the political forces that control this water.
A resource held in trust, or a resource held hostage?
In 1973, the Hawaii Supreme Court ruled that all freshwater resources are held in trust by the State for the common good of its citizens. This ruling was confirmed by the constitutional amendments of 1978 and State Water Code of 1987 that water in Hawai'i is a public trust resource, protected under the State constitution and Water Code, Hawai'i Revised Statutes chapter 174C. These rulings, collectively referred to as the “public trust doctrine”, govern the use of all water in the State of Hawaii. The public trust doctrine appointed the state as the trustee of this resource and endowed the CWRM with the responsibility of ensuring that it is only used for purposes that are ‘reasonable and beneficial’ to the public wellbeing.
But a century before, water transmission infrastructure had been developed by Maui’s sugarcane plantations and in return, these companies were granted water rights that amounted to the permitted diversion and control of nearly all of Maui’s fresh water (and thereby, nearly all of the State of Hawaii’s fresh water). Today, a handful of historic plantation agriculture entities retain control of this resource, despite these water rights being established prior to statehood or the public trust doctrine.
The Commission on Water Resource Management (CWRM) has produced multiple reports detailing Maui’s fresh water supply and uses. CWRM summary findings report that 88 percent of all of Maui’s fresh groundwater supply and 97 percent of the entire island’s surface water supply is diverted and controlled by a handful of agricultural companies – namely, A&B, HC&S, and their subsidiaries. Due to their grandfathered water rights and despite their lack of need, these entities still control the majority of Maui’s water, even while the island experiences increasingly frequent droughts and residents are faced with tightening water restrictions.
East Maui Watershed
For merely $5 per million gallons, East Maui Irrigation (EMI) Company, a subsidiary of A&B, diverts roughly 200 million gallons per day (mgd) for irrigation of its crops. Hawaii Commercial and Sugar (HC&S) takes roughly 6 mgd, Maui Land and Pineapple Company (MLP) takes about 2 mgd, and the left over 6 mgd goes to the County of Maui to supply all of the upcountry areas with potable water. Very little water (insufficient quantities) remains for local taro production.
Like the East Maui Watershed, much of West Maui's surface water supply is controlled by historic entities that secured these water rights before statehood. Up to 70 million gallons a day (mgd) of Na Wai ‘Eha water is diverted and controlled by Hawaii Commercial & Sugar Company (HC&S) and Wailuku Water Company (WWC, formerly Wailuku Agribusiness Company) through “grandfathered” water rights.
Despite the sale of pineapple fields and macadamia nut orchards and the eviction of small farmers from their land, the company continues to divert the same amount of water as at peak production from the region on a daily basis. According to the US Geological Survey, aquifer water levels are approximately half of what they were since extraction began. Chronic diversion has lowered ground water levels and increased salt water intrusion into wells and has turned the last stretch of each of the four streams into dry riverbeds. The report also states that if extraction of water continues at its current rate, these levels will similarly decline.
All the while, the County of Maui faces increasing water shortage due to an expanding population. To offset the shortage, Maui County purchases up to 3.2 million gallons of WWC diverted water a day and has plans to purchase and additional 9 mgd from WWC with the addition of a second (Waiale) water treatment plant.
No Be Lolo, Restore Stream Flow!
Whether this is a fair distribution of a public trust resource is a weighty issue that the Commission on Water Resource Management has been tasked with resolving. In 2004, Hui o Na Wai Eha and Maui Tomorrow Foundation, Inc., two community-based organizations, with the support of Earth Justice, filed a petition with CWRM to require HC&S and WWC to divert less water from the Na Wai Eha streams in order to restore instream flow standards (IFS) to sustainable levels. (Instream Flow Standards refer to a quantity of water required in a stream system to protect fishery, wildlife, recreational, aesthetic, scenic, and other beneficial instream uses.). Enforcement of IFS would require that HC&S and WWC return 50% of what is currently extracted on a daily basis, which amounts to 34.5 million gallons per day, and 12 mgd of current and projected municipal supply. The Commission is scheduled to announce its decision any day now.
HC&S and WWC oppose stream flow restoration on the grounds that reducing the amount of water that it currently takes from Na Wai Eha by half will drive the sugarcane company into bankruptcy. Indeed, the closure of the last remaining sugarcane grower and producer in Hawaii would represent a symbolic loss and would result in job losses for up to 800 HC&S employees and the loss of some $100 million in annual revenue. But HC&S and WWC can no longer even use all of the water they are credited. In fact, Wailuku Water Company no longer functions as an agricultural entity but instead earns its profits by selling water to CoM and other private entities. And in a 2005 letter to shareholders, Wailuku Water Company announced it had a surplus of 27.5 mgd for sale. If WWC had a surplus of 27.5 mgd available for sale to its shareholders in 2005 and currently sells water to the County of Maui on top of that, the claim that stream flow restoration would categorically result in bankruptcy of the company is hard to believe.
Unlike many of my colleagues in the field of development, I actually support the Show Me the Water bill and enforcement of CWRM strem flow restoration mandates. Depletion of our water resources puts us at risk of becoming the next ‘Easter Island’, wherein our existence is threatened by overuse and destruction of the very watershed resources that sustain us. While the likelihood that a lack of water will ever spell the demise of life on Maui is virtually impossible, (after all, Maui does boast the second wettest place in the world), the possibility serves to remind us to respect to our water resources. As a community, it is imperative that we guard our limited water resources with the utmost vigilance, at the risk of depleting our groundwater supply and surface runoff resources.