Column: Balanced solution to water-rights bill rejected, sadly

EDITORIALISLAND VOICES

By Marti Townsend April 7, 2019 Updated April 6, 2019 7:29pm

In a rare move, a state Senate committee voted on Thursday to pass a bill that would have established a true balance between Hawaii’s food sustainability and constitutionally protected water rights. The proposed bill would have prevented Alexander & Baldwin Inc., a $1.8 billion real estate investment trust corporation, from extending its temporary permits to divert streams in East Maui. A&B lobbied for the original House version of this bill, as that version ensured A&B keeps the $62 million it made from the water rights connected to acreage it just sold in Central Maui.

Sen. Kai Kahele and his committee members deserve recognition for their leadership and courage to find a solution that put the people of Hawaii first. He proposed and they adopted a Senate version of the bill that carved out the special interests of A&B — making it clear that the company never had the right to sell public water — and fully provided for small farmers, respected our courts and upheld our stream protections.

But that version did not pass the Ways and Means Committee, and is therefore dead for this session.

Some farmers and ranchers who currently use revocable permits may be concerned that their access to water will be affected. It became clear, however, through the hearings on this measure that their water usage has not been barred by a court ruling, so it could continue uninterrupted.

And the state Department of Land and Natural Resources assured us all of its commitment to moving all water users through the official process to obtain a long-term water lease. It has already begun considering ways to share the cost of watershed protections among the various permittees, as a way to ensure water resources remain affordable for small farmers and ranchers.

For centuries, our water laws made it possible for these islands to support a large population through subsistence farming. For a brief, deleterious time, plantations took more than their fair share of water, which significantly enriched a few, but harmed many rural communities and undermined food security for all of us here.

We are finally emerging from that era, and hopefully will soon return to a balanced system in which public water can be shared equitably. There is enough freshwater in the islands for all of us to thrive. By not allowing A&B to change the law again to suit its special interest, the Senate upheld protections for our water, respected our court system, and defended our democracy from moneyed special interests.

Sustainable local food production is essential to a truly sustainable Hawaii. When it is done in a way that respects our streams, our democracy and our unique way of life, we all benefit.