House OKs bill preserving A&B water rights on Maui

Honolulu Star Advertiser - April 29, 2016
Sophie Cocke

The House on Thursday passed a controversial bill that would allow Alexander & Baldwin to retain the rights to the water flowing through dozens of streams in East Maui while administrative and legal challenges to its request for a long-term lease for water are resolved.

The full Senate was also scheduled to vote on the bill Thursday evening. However, Senate President Ron Kouchi, at the last minute, deferred the vote until Tuesday.

House Bill 2501 has spurred protests from Native Hawaiian advocates and environmentalists who have battled the company for 15 years to restore stream flows on Maui.

The measure has also provoked impassioned debate among lawmakers. During the House vote, Rep. Kaniela Ing spoke of the long history of stream diversions by plantations owners in Hawaii and the impacts this has had on Native Hawaiian taro farmers, customary practices and the environment.

“This session I have been hugged and kissed by elders from my home island, Maui, thanking me for standing for our water. My cheeks are soaked with the tears of my kupuna, and I long to wash these tears away under waterfalls that will be regained from the stones into which they have withered,” Ing told his colleagues during a floor speech. “Many of you know that water in Hawaii means wai, and ‘Hawaii’ without ‘wai’ is just ‘hai,’ which means broken.”

“If we make a decision today against our courts, against the will of our people, for the sole benefit of a corporate plantation, we will reveal that our democracy is broken,” Ing (D, South Maui) continued. “Mr. Speaker, restore our streams.”

The House voted 41-10 to approve HB 2501. If it passes the Senate next week, the bill will be sent to Gov. David Ige for final decision making.

In January, Circuit Judge Rhonda Nishimura ruled that the four state permits A&B had been operating under to divert water were invalid. The Board of Land and Natural Resources had been allowing the company to continue diverting the water for its sugar cane plantation for more than a dozen years under revocable permits that are supposed to be for temporary use only.

A&B has been seeking a long-term lease for the water since 2001, but the application has been bogged down in legal and administrative challenges brought by the Native Hawaiian Legal Corp., which is representing Maui taro farmers. Both sides have blamed each other for the years of delays in reaching a final determination on how much water the company can divert.

A&B is closing down its sugar plantation but says that it needs to hold on to the rights to a portion of the water as it tries to shift its fields to diversified agriculture. A portion of the water also goes to residents and farmers in Upcountry Maui.

HB 2501 is just one of dozens of bills that the Legislature is debating in the final days of this session, which ends May 5.

Also on Thursday, House and and Senate conference committees voted to agree on a bill that would ban ivory sales, and a measure aimed at speeding up the contested case process in light of drawn-out cases such as those involving the Thirty Meter Telescope and A&B’s water lease.

Hawaii is close to joining a growing number of states that are banning the sale of ivory in an attempt to curb the slaughter of elephants in Africa for their tusks. Poachers have killed an estimated 30,000 elephants annually in recent years, raising concerns among conservationists and wildlife officials that the animals could become extinct.

Hawaii is one of the major markets for ivory, despite a federal law banning its importation.

Key senators agreed Thursday to amendments made by the House to Senate Bill 2647, meaning that the proposed ban on ivory sales only needs to pass a vote by the full Senate before it can be sent to Gov. David Ige for decision making.

An earlier version of the bill passed the Senate on a 15-7 vote. However, six senators voted yes with reservations.

Similar bills failed in the Legislature the past two years.

“Hawaii is the endangered species capital of the world, and this will take us a step toward protecting endangered species around the world,” said Sen. Mike Gabbard (D, Kapolei-Makakilo), chairman of the Senate Water, Land and Agriculture Committee and the bill’s main sponsor, during a conference committee meeting Thursday to formally agree on the bill.

The measure has faced stiff opposition from jewelry dealers, as well as the National Rifle Association. Some showpiece firearms have ivory in their handles.

“The NRA is opposed to SB 2647 because, if implemented, it would amount to the taking of property that had been acquired legally and in good faith,” wrote Daniel Reid, state liaison for the NRA, in testimony against the bill. “Needless to say, property that cannot be sold is radically diminished in value.”

The measure does not make it illegal to possess ivory.

SB 2647 also bans the sale of animal parts of other species that are at risk of extinction, such as rhinoceroses, tigers, great apes, sea turtles, walruses, narwhals, monk seals and whales.

House and Senate members also agreed Thursday to House Bill 1581, which would speed up the resolution of important contested case hearings before select state boards and commissions.

The bill is expected to shave years off the appeals process. High-profile contested cases before the Commission on Water Resource Management, Land Use Commission, Public Utilities Commission and Hawaii Community Development Authority, and cases involving conservation districts, could be appealed directly to the Supreme Court. The cases would bypass the Circuit Court and Intermediate Court of Appeals.