Editorial: Stop foot-dragging on water leases

February 18, 2019 Updated February 17, 2019 2:19am

EDITORIALOUR VIEW

Native Hawaiian groups and environmentalists are justified in their anger about House Bill 1326, which prolongs for up to seven years compliance with hard-fought requirements pertaining to distribution and protection of the state’s water resources.

The measure advancing at the state Capitol would allow Alexander &Baldwin Inc., electrical utilities on Kauai and Hawaii island as well as farming and ranching operations to continue siphoning from streams and elsewhere even if they haven’t completed environmental reviews, consultations with Native Hawaiians about water needs and other legal must-dos.

In testimony against HB 1326, opponents persuasively argue that postponing the compliance deadline, without meaningful conditions attached, essentially rewards years of apparent foot-dragging and makes a mockery of the public expectation that state lawmakers will make good on follow-up needed to enforce enacted legislation.

In January 2016, the Circuit Court ruled that the state does not have authority to issue water-collection permits with a term exceeding one year. The ruling left roughly one dozen holders of “revocable permits,” which had allowed collection for longer than one year, in limbo. By way of Act 126 (2016), the Legislature allotted three years to correct the problem.

Now, with the time running out, most of those revocable permit holders are far from close to compliance. The delay, claim the bill’s supporters and various state agencies, is due, in part, to failure to foresee complexities tied to compliance, and the state’s phasing out of long-standing water allocation practices established during the plantation era.

They maintain that for some of the new statutory requirements there are no precedents, and development of baseline standards should not be rushed. That’s somewhat understandable. So is some bureaucratic delay as one regulatory body is tasked with making a move before the other can act.

Still, this case of limbo rightly raises eyebrows. Does it really take a decade to wade into compliance with water use law?

During a recent hearing on HB 1326, an A&B spokesman said the company has made strides toward obtaining a new water lease but also pointed a finger at the state, maintaining that further progress hinges on work that must be conducted by the state Department of Land and Natural Resources.

Moving forward, DLNR and others should pick up the pace, and aim to take the blame-game out of play. And if state lawmakers continue to advance this bill, they should add benchmark conditions — tied to biting penalties. Otherwise, it’s not difficult to envision another postponement pitch surfacing in, say, 2026.

Certainly little about this transition in water use is a jolt for A&B since its longtime diversion-draws from more than 100 streams and tributaries on public watershed lands in East Maui have been scrutinized — and criticized — for decades.

The state Board of Land and Natural Resources has been dinged for a history of routinely extending revocable permits that resulted in some water users skirting stringent lease requirements and accessing water at low costs.

Environmental groups say inadequately checked water diversion has resulted in thinned and dried out stretches of watershed, undermining Hawaiian cultural practices like fishing as well as local recreational activities. Downstream, diversion has slowed taro farming, spurred the presence of invasive species, and reduced vital aquifer replenishment.

In written testimony addressing HB 1326, DLNR asserted that it’s working in tandem with the Commission on Water Resources Management, the Department of Hawaiian Homelands, the attorney general and others to “establish and implement a water leasing process that is fair, transparent, compliant with statutory requirements and consistent with the public trust.” That much is owed to Hawaii’s public, as is a redoubled push to make quicker progress toward compliance.