Sometimes I get the distinct impression that the Hawaii Legislature, though controlled by the Democratic Party, really has no clue as to what their constituents are actually saying. We saw this last month when local elected officials (with just a couple of exceptions) fell over themselves to endorse Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination, while the voters themselves backed Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders by a landslide. And we’re seeing it now with the way the Legislature is handling Alexander & Baldwin (A&B), one of the Hawaii Democratic Party’s greatest campaign benefactors.
On Apr. 20, to the surprise of many, A&B officials announced that they would “fully and permanently restore” a few taro streams in East Maui. “The streams to be permanently restored are the priority streams identified jointly in 2001 by the State Commission on Water Resource Management and the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation on behalf of its East Maui clients,” stated an A&B news release. In the same release, company president and CEO Christopher Benjamin said the company would act fast to restore the streams.
“Restoration of these priority streams will be implemented as soon as possible,” he said in the Apr. 20 news release. “In some cases, we are able to remove diversions immediately, while others will require reconstruction. Our hope is to work with the East Maui community as we implement this stream restoration plan, as well as on other water matters, as we move forward with the transition at HC&S to diversified agriculture.”
If it seems odd to you that A&B would suddenly announce that they’ll suddenly restore streams that had been tagged for restoration 15 years earlier, then you won’t be surprised to hear that just one day after the company’s historic announcement–on Apr. 21–state legislators reinserted A&B into House Bill 2501, a water rights measure that would give the company “a three-year extension to lease water from the state,” according to an Apr. 21 Honolulu Civil Beat story.
Sierra Club Hawaii director Marti Townsend immediately cried foul, telling Civil Beat, “We knew that A&B’s commitment to open stream diversification was timed to influence legislators’ vote on the [sic] this bill, and today’s discussion about the SD1 [the version of the bill that includes A&B] just proves it.”
HB 2501 is a monster of a bill. Though very short, it would authorize “holdover permits” on water rights–an action that Native Hawaiian advocates say is outrageous. In fact, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) gave three pages of very eloquent testimony on Feb. 26 before the House Committee on Water and Land that just eviscerated the bill.
“This measure would allow the state to continue abdicating its kuleana to East Maui kalo farmers–many of whom have deep ancestral ties to their lands, and who have long sought the modest return of water to just 27 of 100-plus East Maui streams–as well as the cultural practitioners, gatherers, fishers, and others who depend on the public trust in East Maui’s water resources,” stated OHA’s written testimony. “In doing so, this bill may also inadvertently tie the state’s hands in managing and upholding the public trust in our water resources generally, and potentially undermine the foundation of water management and policy in Hawai‘i.”
According to OHA, in 2003, a circuit court ruled that A&B had to do an environmental assessment before it could get a long-term water lease. “Despite the court ruling, A&B continued to divert water under so-called ‘holdover’ permits, while East Maui kalo farmers and others waited for some stream flow to be restored,” states the OHA testimony. “12 years later, the state and A&B have failed to start, much less issue, an environmental assessment; meanwhile, some kalo farmers have passed away, waiting for water that has still not been returned. Not surprisingly, the state’s practice of issuing ‘holdover’ permits for the last 12 years has recently been found improper by a circuit court. This measure would effectively overrule this most recent circuit court decision regarding East Maui ‘holdover’ permits.”
In case you were wondering, three of the five introducers of the bill represent Maui: Rep. Joe Souki, D–Wailuku; Rep. Justin Woodson, D–Kahului; and Rep. Kyle Yamashita, D–Upcountry. All three of accepted at least $250 in campaign contributions from A&B’s political action committee (PAC) since March 2015, according to the state Campaign Spending Commission (though any contributions they’ve received in 2016 won’t be known until later this summer). On Apr. 22, Civil Beat reported that A&B’s PAC has, since Nov. 8, 2006, donated an astonishing $600,000 to state candidates and officials.
On Apr. 22, the bill passed out of Conference Committee with A&B’s inclusion intact. The full House and Senate still have to vote on it–and Gov. David Ige needs to sign it–before it becomes law.
Photo of East Maui taro fields in 1970: Environmental Protection Agency/Wikimedia Commons