[A version of this story was previously posted online. It has since been updated. This is the version that appears in the 3/28 print issue of MauiTime.]
The increasingly unpopular HB1326 – the so-called “Corporate Water Theft” bill – currently languishing in the Senate, took another hit last weekend. In a letter written Sunday, March 24 to legislators, the Democratic Party of Hawai‘i officially declared its opposition to the proposed bill, which would allow companies such as Mahi Pono seven more years of revocable “holdover” permits with which to divert water from East Maui watershed and other streams around the state without first submitting Environmental Impact Statements. The letter puts state senators in the awkward position of voting against their own party if they decide to support the bill.
“The Party believes the Board of Land and Natural Resources (BLNR) and entities, such as Alexander and Baldwin (A&B), should no longer be allowed to rely on one-year holdover permits to steal public water resources for their own purposes,” the letter states. “Prior to the passage of Act 126 [in 2016], BLNR and holders of the holdover permits had decades to comply with the law and failed to do so. Following the passage of Act 126, those same entities have had three years to convert those permits and have again failed to do so.”
The letter was drafted after a meeting of the State Central Committee on Saturday, March 23 and signed by Chairman Keali‘i Lopez and Legislation Committee Co-chairs Josh Frost and Zahava Zaidoff. They urge legislators to “respect the ruling of the State Supreme Court regarding A&B’s illegal taking of water from public streams and halt this bill immediately.”
South Maui Representative Tina Wildberger, who voted against HB1326 in two committees and in floor votes, praised the party’s decision. “I am thrilled to see the Democratic Party under Chair Lopez’s leadership make a strong statement that business as usual needs to sunset in the Aloha State,” she told MauiTime. “It’s time to follow the law of Act 126.”
Despite hours of testimony and hundreds of pages filed in opposition from progressive, environmental, and cultural organizations (and in support from government, business, and farming operations), HB1326 pretty much sailed through the House in the first weeks of the current legislative session. Mahi Pono senior vice president of operations Shan Tsutsui – a registered Mahi Pono lobbyist and strong HB1326 supporter – was a constant presence at the Legislature. After it crossed over to the Senate, the bill’s next stop was the five-member Committee on Water and Land.
During a Maui visit in late February by four members of that committee to tour the East Maui watershed and visit with Mahi Pono officials, Tsutsui distributed to them a “Farm Narrative” that suggested dire consequences for croplands if the water bill didn’t pass, a move that seemed to hurt Mahi Pono’s efforts rather than help. It led one committee member, Sen. Gil Riviere of O‘ahu, to suggest that Mahi Pono spend more time trying to get a proper long-term water lease.
In the face of growing and extremely vocal opposition, the Water and Land Committee hearing was never scheduled. Instead, senate leadership announced that the bill would be heard at a joint meeting of the Land and Water and Ways and Means Committees, although that meeting has yet to be scheduled.
So, could this damning letter be the kiss of death for HB1326? Hardly, says Neal Milner, who taught political science at the University of Hawai‘i for 40 years. “A state-level political party doesn’t have any kind of control over the Legislature,” he said in an interview. “They have almost no carrots or sticks.”
However, Milner did acknowledge that issuing such a letter was unusual and could alter the bill’s trajectory. “I think what a legislator does get from this is that it’s clear this bill has moved from a piece of ordinary legislation into something with a higher level of visibility, which changes the narrative,” he explained. “It can’t just sail through anymore.”
To Milner, the combination of the Democratic Party’s letter, the vocal opposition, and the committee hearing delay on HB1326 adds up to “sufficient red flags” that may result in the legislation being “taken off the table.”
But, he quickly added, “Notice that I said ‘may.’”
What will happen if HB1326 doesn’t pass? HB1326 supporters, who include Mayor Michael Victorino, have been loudly declaring that failure to pass the bill will drastically affect Upcountry water availability. In a February 19 letter submitted to the House Committee on Finance, Victorino wrote, “The entire Upcountry Maui system relies on water from East Maui’s streams and ditches. Approximately 80% of the water delivered by Maui Country’s Department of Water Supply to Upcountry Maui comes from surface water sources [i.e., EMI ditches].” Victorino even raised the issue during his State of the County speech, which this year was held in an Upcountry auditorium instead of its normal venue at the Maui Arts and Cultural Center. During that address, Victorino raised the doomsday scenario of water drying up for 35,000 Upcountry residents. And if that wasn’t scary enough, he threw in a waterless Kula Hospital and Kula Agricultural Park as well.
However, as Kehaulani Cerizo reported in last Sunday’s Maui News, Victorino’s own staff – in this case, Maui Department of Water Supply director Jeff Pearson – dismissed the mayor’s apocalyptic predictions last week at a meeting of the county’s Board of Water Supply. Even if the bill didn’t pass, Pearson said, “I am quite confident we are going to still have [Upcountry] water available.”
Board of Water Supply Vice Chair Shay Chan Hodges added, “(The 80 percent) is somewhat deceptive. It’s not like 80 percent of the water coming out of the faucet is impacted by this legislation.”
MauiTime contacted the mayor’s office Monday morning to see if he might want to revise his remarks about HB1326 and its impact on Upcountry water in light of these new facts. Although county spokesman Brian Perry said, “We are working on a response,” one was not issued by our deadline on Tuesday. And, as usual, Mahi Pono officials did not respond to MauiTime’s queries.
Image 1 courtesy of flickr/Will Scullin