Impending HC&S Closure Raises Questions About Future of East, West Maui Diversions

posted in: February 2016 | 0

With Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar’s announcement that it will be harvesting its last crop of sugarcane this year, the question looms large: What’s going to happen to the hundreds of millions of gallons of stream water diverted daily from East and West Maui to feed the thirsty crop?

If what happened in the Waiahole Ditch case on O`ahu after the closure of Amfac’s sugar plantation in mid-1990s provides any clue, it’s more than likely that much of the water will be returned to the streams of origin. Exactly how much and when remains to be seen.

East Maui

In East Maui, it’s not at all clear just how much water is being taken from more than 100 streams diverted by the century-old irrigation system operated by Alexander & Baldwin, Inc., subsidiary East Maui Irrigation Co., Ltd. The system’s capacity is estimated at 450 million gallons a day (mgd), but there are currently no stream or diversion gages that could give an accurate picture of how much water is in the streams and how much is diverted.

“EMI represents they release all flows on low-flow days,” Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation attorney Camille Kalama told the state Board of Land and Natural Resources in December. Even so, monitoring data collected by the state Commission on Water Resource Management for a handful of the streams show that the interim instream flow standards set several years ago often go unmet.  (Those standards are the subject of an ongoing contested case hearing.)

“We’re not able to determine whether it’s from low flows or diversions upstream,” Kalama said, referring to the deficiency. In any case, she said her clients, who grow taro and gather fauna from the stream, have complained repeatedly that water restored in 2007 under a Land Board order is insufficient.

She noted that real-time stream gages installed by the U.S. Geological Survey have been discontinued. As a result, “if there is an IIFS set and it’s not met, our clients don’t find out until two or three years later,” she lamented.

Land Board chair Suzanne Case agreed with Kalama on the importance of having adequate data on how much water is flowing above and below the diversions,

“It’s an expense, but I think we can collectively agree, the more data we have, the better our ability to manage the system will be,” Case said.

Because East Maui is not a water management area, which means that the Water Commission does not allocate water to users via Water Use Permits, the IIFS will go a long way toward determining what’s left in streams. When or whether the Land Board issues a lease, license, or permit allowing for diversions of stream water from East Maui will also affect the amount left in streams. The current diversion by A&B and EMI is under heated dispute (see this month’s cover story).

Attorneys for NHLC did not respond by press time to questions about how the closure of HC&S will affect their clients’ attempts to restore stream flows in East Maui.

Na Wai `Eha

HC&S once diverted some 50 mgd via a ditch system that draws water from four West Maui streams known collectively as Na Wai `Eha, but under a 2014 settlement agreement, about half of that is being left in the streams. Because this system, unlike that of East Maui, falls within a water management area, the Water Commission governs who gets to use water from the streams and how much.

In 2009, the Water Commission received more than 100 water use permit applications from existing users. HC&S submitted two applications to meet the water needs of its sugarcane fields: 36.29 mgd for its Waihe`e-Hopoi fields, and 10.59 mgd for its `Iao-Waikapu fields, for a total of nearly 47 mgd.

Similar to what’s occurring in East Maui, taro farmers and other holders of appurtenant rights in the area of Na Wai Eha have objected to the diversion of most of the stream water for sugarcane.

“The upshot is we are heading to a contested case in the WUPA [water use permit application] proceeding,” says Earthjustice attorney Isaac Moriwake, who represents the non-profit Maui Tomorrow, as well as Hui o Na Wai `Eha, which includes many area residents seeking stream restoration.

Parties to the case are expected to start filing motions this month and continue through April, with the hearing commencing in June, he said. Former Water Commissioner and state Department of Health director Lawrence Miike will be the hearing officer.

When asked how the impending closure of HC&S will affect the WUPA proceedings, Moriwake says, “We need to figure that out, particularly before we dive too deeply into the permit applications. … HC&S was using 85 percent of the water.”

“This is the Waiahole Ditch case all over again,” he said.

If A&B does, indeed, fulfill its diversified agriculture plans, Moriwake says that will still open the door for large volumes of water to be returned to streams. He noted that in the Waiahole case, the Hawai`i Supreme Court compared the water needs of sugar and diversified ag, finding that sugar needed 7,500-10,000 gallons per acre per day, while diversified crops required only 2,500 gallons per acre per day.

— Teresa Dawson

For Further Reading

Environment Hawai`i has published many articles, all available at, that will provide additional background to the dispute over West Maui surface water. The following is an abbreviated list:

  • “Commission Struggles with Conflicting Claims Surrounding West Maui Stream Diversions,” February 2006;
  • “Hearings Begin in Contested Case over Diversion of West Maui Streams,” “USGS Seeks Temporary Releases For Study of Instream Values,” and “Wailuku Water Co. Sells Ditch Water Without Consent of Utilities Commission,” December 2007;
  • “Commission Tightens Grip on Waters of Central Maui,” May 2008;
  • “Commission’s Order on Na Wai `Eha Baffles Its Most Experienced Member,” “The Water Commission: An Idea Whose Time Has Passed (Editorial),” “Maui Agency Is Sued Over Plan to Have A&B Put Stream Water in Municipal System,” “Environment Hawai`i Questions Miike On Dissent in Na Wai `Eha Decision,” July 2010;
  • “Supreme Court Weighs Jurisdiction In Appeal of Decision on Maui Water,” and “Supreme Court Dissects Arguments In Appeal of Maui Stream Standards,” July 2012;
  • “Supreme Court Orders Water Commission to Revisit Decision on West Maui Streams,” September 2012

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