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Farmers Win Water Battle With Corporation—for Now

April 13, 2019, 11:05 AM HST (Updated April 13, 2019, 11:27 AM)
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Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz, who chairs the Senate Ways and Means Committee, recently deferred House Bill 1326 HD2, the controversial measure on revocable water permits referred to by its opponents as “the corporate water theft bill.”If passed, it would have allowed for the extension of revocable water permits while applications for water leases are pending, which in turn would give a large corporation (Alexander & Baldwin) rights to continue diverting millions of gallons of this public resource. Some fear the bill being deferred might negatively impact  the owners of four hydroelectric plant businesses on Kaua‘i and seven on Hawai‘i island who are still applying for permits, as well as many Hawai‘i cattle ranchers and farmers who are also using revocable permits.

Alexander & Baldwin has been diverting hundreds of millions of gallons of water annually from streams in East Maui for its sugar cane operations. The Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation and Hawai‘i Sierra Club strongly opposed this bill, arguing it benefited A&B to the tune of $62 million. Despite not owning the water, which is protected by the Hawai‘i Constitution as a public trust resource, A&B’s contract with Maui to Mahi Pono LLC guarantees them a certain amount of usage within a specific time frame. If water to the land is disrupted, their recent sale of land in Maui to Maui to Mahi Pono LLC would fall through.

Former sugarcane lands in Central Maui. PC: Alexander & Baldwin.

Sen. Kai Kahele expressed concerns for small ranchers and farmers. He proposed a version of the bill that just narrowly passed the Water and Land Committee which would have excluded A&B’s water rights. His amended version gained the favor of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and the Hawai‘i Sierra Club.

During the public hearing, for which approximately 604 residents submitted written testimony in opposition and 60 submitted written testimonies in support, it became clear to the senators that there was no legal basis for small farmers and ranchers to be swept up in this issue because the water was held by the public trust. The overwhelming position of those who testified in person was to “kill the bill” and in the end, the big corporations lost at the House of Representatives. However, the Senate could pull the measure to the floor at any time this legislative session.

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House Speaker Scott K. Saiki released the following statement on the Water Rights Bill:

“The report that the House leadership is pressuring the Senate to advance HB 1326 during its floor session is not true. At this point, it is entirely up to the Senate leadership to determine how it wants to proceed. Whatever the leadership decides, it is important that the Legislature be civil and reasoned, rather than divisive.” 

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Find the contact information for your local senators here or check the status of the bill and submit testimony here.

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