Restore Public Water to Streams on Maui

Restore these streams, revitalize these Native Hawaiian communities

Healoha Carmichael in Honomanu Stream
Healoha Carmichael can’t gather from this stream like her ancestors did because Alexander & Baldwin continues to drain it dry for its defunct sugar plantation.

Sierra Club of Hawai‘i is standing up for the protection of our native ecosystem and the rights of traditional taro farmers to the public water in our streams.  For decades, a private corporation called Alexander & Baldwin has diverted public water from streams in East Maui. Because streams in East Maui run dry taro patches are cracked, stream ecosystems are decimated, and more sustainable rural ways of living are lost.  This is a form of cultural genocide and ecological destruction that should no longer be tolerated. 

Right now, Alexander & Baldwin is requesting a new temporary permit to divert water from the public’s streams, even though they closed the sugar plantation and have no plans yet for future cultivation. What do they need the water for?!


1) Submit testimony to the BLNR by Thursday Dec. 8th at 5PM: kuulei.n.moses[at]

2) Attend the BLNR hearing on Alexander & Baldwin’s permit request Friday Dec. 9th at 9AM at BLNR 1151 Punchbowl St. room 132. 

3) Submit a letter to the Editor:,

HOW WE GOT HERE – Background on HB2501 and the history of sugar in Hawaiʻi:

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Corporate diversions of public water mean streams in East Maui run dry, killing native ecosystems and undermining traditional taro farming.

The Public Trust doctrine prioritizes customary, traditional practices and the health of native streams and coastal life over private commercial uses. If passed, this bill would allow commercial users to divert millions of gallons of public water per day and avoid protections for both Hawaiian and public water interests indefinitely, with no limitations on the amount or duration of the diversion.

Current A&B diversions remove almost all water from several East Maui streams leaving dry rock beds and stagnant water, however the practice has never undergone any type of environmental review. This bill circumvents public trust protections by allowing private users to evade Environmental Impact Studies (EIS) and Environmental Assessments (EA) required for revocable permits.

A&B does not need public water. A&B holds 33,000 acres in Central Maui of which 23,000 are designated Important Agricultural Lands (IAL.) Court documents submitted by A&B indicate there are 132 million gallons per day (million gallons of water per day) available from their existing private sources.

Demonstrating a severe lack of stewardship over their private water, A&B loses an average of 41 million gallons per day mostly due to unlined reservoirs and aging pipes. The remaining 91 million gallons of water per day average would be more than sufficient to meet the approximate water duty for A&B water and land commitments in East Maui.

A&B recently declared plans to harvest its last 17,000 acres of cultivated sugarcane by the end of 2016 and expressed the intent to convert those fields to diversified agriculture in the future. Diversified agriculture needs less than half the water for sugarcane or about 2,500 gallons of water per acre per day. With an average of about 42.5 million gallons of water per day for diversified agriculture on all cultivated acres and a $2 million annual contract with the County of Maui to supply 9 million gallons of water per day for Upcountry residents, 91 million gallons of water per day would more than sufficiently satisfy approximate A&B irrigation needs. Even if A&B were to grow on 30,000 acres, they only need about 75 million gallons of water per day to cultivate diverse crops.

A&B could seek the same relief the County of Maui received in Circuit Court by requesting a stay of enforcement while they appeal the Circuit Court’s invalidation of their holdover status. A&B would simply need to explain to the Court how much water they need and why, as the County did. Since the 1980’s, A&B has paid the State of Hawai‘i only $160,000 for use of 33,000 acres of public land, and 164 million gallons per day on average of diverted public water in East Maui alone. This bill would continue to subsidize the profits of a multi-billion dollar company receiving special status over the interests of the public trust.

What does HB2501 do?

HB2501 propose to legitimize the historic theft of millions of gallons of public water from the streams of East Maui by changing  Hawai‘i Revised Statute 171 to allow for “hold-over” permits.  This would allow the Department of Land and Natural Resources to perpetually renew short-term permits for the use of 33,000 acres of public land without proper consideration and mitigation of the harms it causes to our unique natural environment and cultural practices. 

Why is HB2501 bad?

For many reasons:

  1. Because it would allow one big corporation to waste millions of gallons of freshwater every day, while the streams run dry and Hawaiian farmers are starved from their land.
  2. It circumvents the established process for requesting access to public water.
  3. It rewards A&B for manipulating the permitting system for years.
  4. It contradicts longstanding public policies in place to protect streams, freshwater, traditional farming practices, and our imperiled natural environment.

Who is taking the public’s water?

Alexander & Baldwin (A&B), which owns Hawaii Commercial & Sugar Company (HC&S) and East Maui Irrigation (EMI), was founded in Hawaii in 1870 by the descendants of missionaries as a sugar plantation. Now that sugar no longer makes significant profits, the company has evolved into a commercial real estate developer.  At one point, it was one of the largest landowners and employers in Hawai‘i.  Because of this “too big to fail” status, A&B got a lot of special treatment over the years… like access to the public’s water for cheap.

Does A&B need all the water that they take from the stream?

No. A&B is a water hog.  The current recommendation before the Water Commission for the in-stream flow standards for the East Maui streams concludes that A&B has diverted and wasted around 41 million gallons of water every day for decades — they simply do not need all the water they are taking. They are hogging the public’s water for their own potential benefit, and harming the health of our people and our environment at the same time.

If we restore the water to the stream, will A&B be without water?

No. A&B has plenty of water. Without the current “hold over permits,” A&B  still has at least 80 million gallons of water a day from private sources they control.  And that is enough for diversified agriculture.  If all of A&B’s land in central Maui were cultivated in diversified crops, then according to the Water Commission they would need around 75 million gallons a day. 

What about the workers? If water is restored to the streams, will people be unemployed?

No. HC&S is closing and laying off its workforce because the company cannot compete with cheaper sugar grown in other parts of the world. Restoring water to the streams is not the reason there are no local jobs in sugar.

There are opportunities to create new jobs in diversified agriculture. The closing of HC&S opens up the opportunity for new kinds of agriculture to take root in Maui.  Diversified agriculture — lots of small farms growing a wide variety of products — is the best course of action for the future of agriculture in Hawai‘i.  And, as water is restored to the streams there will be more opportunities for people who have lived along the streams for generations to return to traditional farming, if they would like to.

The main thing that must be done when deciding how to allocate water resources is to make sure there is a balance between the needs of the stream ecosystem, the taro farmers, and the other forms of agricultural uses.  That is where the Commission on Water Resource Management comes in and why an Environmental Impact Statement is so important.

Why is this happening now?

People are pushing back on the historic abuse of public water supplies. Water in Hawai‘i is and always has been a public trust resource.  It is not owned by anyone, and is everyone’s responsibility. Over the years, Hawai‘i has established laws guaranteeing the streams will flow to the ocean, everyone will have access to water, and no water will be wasted.  

Unfortunately, these laws have not been fairly enforced. State agencies and lawmakers have allowed major corporations with long histories in the islands to take the public’s water without following the legal process for permits and leases. This is changing thanks to the work of local residents advocating for the protection of their water and perpetuation of their cultural practices.  You can help them by taking action on this bill. 

What is the process for getting access to public water for, say, agricultural uses?

The Hawai‘i Commission on Water Resource Management is an agency in the Department of Land and Natural Resources that reviews requests for the use of public water.  Their decisions must balance the needs of the natural ecosystem, the traditional and customary practices of Native Hawaiians, and the residential and commercial consumers of water.

How did A&B get access to the public’s water in the first place?

Since the early days of sugar plantations in Hawai‘i, A&B/EMI/HC&S has taken millions of gallons of water every day from the East Maui streams without consideration for the harm to the ecosystem or proper compensation to other water users, like traditional taro farmers. In the early 2000’s A&B sought a 30 year lease for thousands of acres of public trust land and permits to continue diversion of unlimited amounts of public water.

A&B leases were challenged by East Maui residents who were legally entitled to adequate water resources in their streams and taro patches, but  A&B/ EMI/ HC&S still got to divert unlimited water,  through the form of month-to-month revocable permits given to them by the Department of Land and Natural Resources, paying a total of $160,000 a year to “transport” nearly 60 billion gallons. These permits are summarily renewed every year — no environmental impact statement, no mitigation for the harm to the ecosystem or the taro farmers, no public auction.  The law does not technically allow for this practice that is now known as “hold over permits.” The Department of Land and Natural Resources invented this concept on its own for the exclusive benefit of A&B and its subsidiaries.  That is why A&B is before the Legislature now asking them to retroactively legalize this concept, so that they can continue to steal the water from East Maui farmers and the native ecosystem with impunity.

With the close of sugar plantations and the resolution of decades-long litigation, water is being restored to the streams. A&B, however, is making a last ditch attempt to continue to take the public’s water without following the established process.  Don’t let A&B steal our future. Submit testimony in opposition to HB2501.


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