[In November 2018, MauiTime broke the story of the $262-million sale of 56,000 acres of Alexander & Baldwin sugarcane land and watershed to Mahi Pono, a joint venture between California-based Pomona Farming and a Canadian pension fund. Our Changing Maui: Mahi Pono series examines all facets of the sale and the changes it will bring to Maui. It is part of Changing Maui, a larger series about changes facing Maui County.]
Mahi Pono, the new owner of Central Maui agricultural land, plans to plant 9,000 acres of tropical fruits and nut trees, 3,000 acres of coffee and other “specialty” crops, 3,200 acres divided into a community garden, “diversified” agriculture, and “limited non-GMO” energy crops, plus 15,977 acres for cattle grazing. All it will take to produce those 31,177 acres of bounty is about 62 million gallons of water a day.
That’s one scenario outlined in a Mahi Pono document unofficially obtained by MauiTime late last week. It’s called the “Maui Pono EIS Farm Plan Narrative,” and is apparently a section of the draft environmental impact statement (EIS) that the company is preparing. It was given by senior vice president of operations Shan Tsutsui last week to a group of state lawmakers visiting Maui in conjunction with HB1326, the so-called “Corporate Water Theft” bill making its way through the Hawai‘i Legislature. In its current form, the bill extends for another seven years the controversial use of “revocable water permits” which allow permit holders in Hawai‘i (one on Maui, four on Kaua‘i, and seven on the Big Island) to continue to divert water from streams while they work to fulfill the legal requirements for obtaining permanent long-term water leases.
It’s a contentious situation, but despite vigorous opposition from political, cultural, and conservation groups, the bill is said to be supported by legislative leadership and looks, at present, to be unstoppable (it passed its third House vote Tuesday and now moves to the Senate). Mahi Pono supports the bill and Tsutsui has been vigorously lobbying in Honolulu for its passage. At the same time, the company has been holding a number of community meetings on Maui where attendees have continued to demand that Mahi Pono give out information on its crop and water plans.
The Farm Plan Narrative leaked out after those two issues converged at a meeting in Ha‘iku last week. It was convened as a fact-finding session on HB1326 by Big Island Senator Kaiali‘i Kahele, O‘ahu Senators Gil Riviere and Clarence Nishihara, and Maui Senator Gil Keith-Agaran. The four are members of the five-person Senate Water and Land Committee, which will soon hold a hearing on the bill. During the meeting, numerous members of the East Maui farming community railed over water diversion and the damage it has caused to streams and the area’s ecosystem. Many testifiers also clamored for Mahi Pono to release information on what it intended to plant and how much water it would use.
Crop or water information was not forthcoming. Mahi Pono’s community relations consultant Tiare Lawrence told the approximately 75 people in attendance that the company was “two months away” from a draft environmental impact statement. That timeline is probably accurate – the EIS will run more than 400 pages. However, Lawrence did not mention the existence of an informative four-page nugget from that EIS – the Farm Plan Narrative – which would be provided to the visiting senators just 24 hours later, during their visit to Mahi Pono’s Central Maui office.
In addition to the bucolic “with water lease” scenario, the narrative also included two rather nasty planting scenarios if water leases are denied to Mahi Pono. “No-Lease Farm Plan #1,” the most severe, dramatically slashes plantable acreage from 15,200 acres of irrigated farm land to only 4,850 acres. The acreage allotted for tropical fruit and nut planting would drop from 9,000 to 2,850 acres. Only 1,000 acres of coffee and specialty crops and 1,000 acres for a community garden, diversified agriculture, and energy crops would be planted. But cattle land would rise significantly, from 16,000 to 26,327 acres: 3,750 acres of irrigated pasture, and 22,577 acres of unirrigated pasture.
Plus, according to this scenario, in the event Mahi Pono was denied water leases, the company would have “9,577 unirrigated acres that will be unproductive for agriculture. Mahi Pono will likely have to find alternative uses for that property,” the document states.
Maui Tomorrow executive director Albert Perez found Mahi Pono’s “no-lease” scenario “concerning,” especially the need to find “alternative uses” for 9,577 acres. “What does that mean exactly,” he asked. “Gentleman’s farms?”
Mahi Pono general manager Larry Nixon referred all questions about the “Farm Plan Narrative” to Tsutsui. In an email to Tsutsui, I asked if the document was an accurate reflection of Mahi Pono’s actual planting and water needs. He did not respond.
When I asked Tiare Lawrence why the Farm Plan Narrative wasn’t presented at the public meeting in Ha‘iku, she said, “Because it’s still a draft. The draft farm plan isn’t completed yet.” When I asked why the senators were given an incomplete plan, she answered, “Because they wanted it.”
Lawrence also launched into an argument that she has been using often with anyone who questions Mahi Pono’s water lease-seeking process (although she acknowledged that even she doesn’t support HB1326). “As you can see, the farm plan would drastically change if there is no water lease. I fear the investors will sell the land. We would end up with a huge ranch and I’m sure that’s not what the majority wants to happen.”
I told her that her argument sounded a lot like the one A&B employed when critics complained about the company’s sugarcane burning: that without sugarcane, Central Maui would turn into one big shopping center.
“I come from Lahaina. I know what happens when ag land fails,” she responded.
The “with water” plan assumes the need for 61.78 million gallons of water a day, which is considerably less water than was used by Alexander & Baldwin for sugarcane irrigation and an amount that complies with Interim Instream Flow Standards set by the state in 2018. However, even that amount seemed excessive to Gil Riviere, who is no stranger to water legislation. The senator voted against the 2016 version of HB1326 and was the only senator last week to tell those gathered for the Ha‘iku water meeting that he would not support the bill.
“From what I saw [while visiting Mahi Pono], I don’t understand why they can’t live off the 23 [millions of gallons a day] they’ve already got, plus what they can pump [from wells],” Riviere said Friday. “In addition, their current revocable permit doesn’t expire until the end of the year, so they can pull all kinds of water out of there. Then Mahi Pono can go ahead and get the proper long-term water lease like they’re required to by law. I believe we should be encouraging them to get on with that process.”
As for the dire “no water lease” scenario, Riviere said, dryly, “That’s what they do – the world’s gonna end unless they get their water.”
So if, in fact, Mahi Pono’s water supply is ample, why the heavy lobbying? Why the dire scenarios? As MauiTime has previously reported, if the water bill doesn’t pass, A&B could be forced to rebate up to $62 million of the $267 million purchase price. And though HB1326 seems destined to succeed, Shan Tsutsui (also registered as a Mahi Pono lobbyist) seems to be leaving nothing to chance.
Image 1 courtesy flickr/wscullin
Image 2 courtesy Alexander and Baldwin