MAUI TIME CONTINUES REPORTS ON THIS HUGE ISLAND WIDE PROJECT
[MauiTime first broke the story of the sale of Alexander & Baldwinâ€™s old sugarcane lands in November 2018. Our ongoing Changing Maui: Mahi Pono series investigates the new owners of these massive land holdings and the changes they will bring to Maui. It is part of Changing Maui, a larger series on the changes facing Maui County.]
Well, the Mahi Pono charm offensive is over. Just five weeks after buying 56,000 acres of Maui farmland and watershed for $262 million, the California-controlled, Canadian pension fund-bankrolled corporation apparently is through with its cursory â€œlisteningâ€ tour. An email from social activist-turned-Mahi Pono consultant Sean Lester recently made the rounds in Maui agricultural and environmental circles, and â€“ to put it mildly â€“ eyebrows were raised. Gone was the â€œWe are stewards of the landâ€ mask. Underneath? A slavering Lord of the Rings Gollum whose â€œPrecious,â€ in this case, is water. Lots and lots of East Maui water.
First a bit of background. East Mauiâ€™s water has been the source of contention and legislation since the first water lease was granted by King David Kalakaua in 1876. Big growers like Claus Spreckels and Alexander & Baldwin demanded cheap water for Central Maui sugarcane and took it; East Maui farmers needed water for more traditional crops like kalo, as well as other cultural practices, and lost it. Over the years, constant sugarcane-related diversions emptied streams and ruined the ecosystem. In 2018, a 17-year water diversion battle ended when the state water commission ordered the full restoration of water flow to ten East Maui streams, plus limited or no diversions from another seven streams so that habitat could be restored.
It was a big victory for kalo farmers, fishermen, hunters, and cultural practitioners â€” at least on paper. Restoring the streams has been slow going. A&B dragged its corporate feet implementing the state-mandated changes, but still wanted its water permits renewed â€“ even after it stopped growing sugarcane. Arguments continue over the way the state has continued to grant â€œrevocableâ€ one-year water permits to A&B, even though the company hasnâ€™t fully complied with the requirements for getting those permits. And the three-year limit on the revocable one-year permits expires this year.
In short: Itâ€™s an unholy mess.
Enter Mahi Pono (meaning â€œto grow or cultivate properlyâ€) which began wooing lawmakers on the first day of the 2019 session. The results of that effort were immediate. Bills were rapidly introduced by Sen. Gil Keith-Agaran (D-Central Maui) in the Senate (SB1116); and Upcountry Rep. Kyle Yamashita was among supporters of the House version, HB1326. The identical bills amend an existing water lease statute by basically sweeping away any time constraints or challenges that might slow the granting of â€œrevocable water permitsâ€ to companies like, well, Mahi Pono.
To boost this water campaign, consultant Lester fired off a strident email demanding support, liberally employing caps and boldface: â€œANYONE WHO WANTS A FARMING FUTURE AND FOOD SECURITY FOR MAUI NEEDS TO STRONGLY SUPPORT THIS BILL IN ANY WAY POSSIBLE NOW.â€
In the email, Lester maintained that Mahi Ponoâ€™s success depends on â€œa long-term solid water sourceâ€¦ what a blessing this will be for all of us.â€
He wrote, â€œThis is the set of bills Mahi Pono really needs help with. Without them, the farming venture is at grave risk, as is the future of farming here on Maui. And failure isnâ€™t an option,â€ he added ominously.
Lester also took a shot at the Sierra Club (akin to kicking Grandma), saying that he heard the organization opposed the bills. â€œWhy? Who knowsâ€¦â€ He suggested the nonprofitâ€™s stance could â€œcause great harm to Mauiâ€™s farming future.â€
Lesterâ€™s email so irritated one Maui resident that he proffered a new nickname for the two-month old corporation: â€œMaybe Pono.â€
Community activist Lucienne de Naie was quick to describe the billâ€™s intent. â€œItâ€™s a blank check,â€ said de Naie, the conservation chair of Sierra Clubâ€™s Maui chapter. â€œA&Bâ€™s version was, â€˜We need every drop of water we can get. We canâ€™t possibly have anything interfere with these revocable permits.â€™ Mahi Pono is asking for the same thing.â€
DeCoiteâ€™s bill would prohibit East Maui stream diversion for commercial purposes
De Naie isnâ€™t the only one troubled by Mahi Ponoâ€™s push for unfettered access to water. After seeing the bill, Rep. Lynn DeCoite drafted HB1573 (Sen. J. Kalani English sponsored the companion Senate Bill 1488) which is pretty much the polar opposite of the Mahi Pono initiative. DeCoiteâ€™s bill simply prohibits â€œany water use permit that authorizes the diversion of water from East Maui streams for commercial purposes.â€
â€œI drafted the bill because constituents in my area have grave concerns about these water permits,â€ said DeCoite, whose District 13 covers East Maui, Lanaâ€˜i, and Molokaâ€˜i. â€œThey have been waiting for their water for a long time. If they have to wait for their water, then nobody gets permits first.â€ She added, â€œLook, if you live Upcountry and you want a water meter, you have to generate a farm plan. Whereâ€™s [Mahi Ponoâ€™s] farm plan showing what itâ€™s going to grow and what its water needs will be? If it doesnâ€™t have a farm plan, then get one.â€
When contacted, Lester said he wasnâ€™t bothered by the reaction to his email. â€œWhatever is going to be happening with the large purchase like this is going to upset some. Iâ€™m more than happy to meet with any groups that have questions.â€
Update: On Wednesday, Lester wrote to me to clarify his Sierra Club remarks. After first explaining, â€œI wonâ€™t be writing anymore emails at 2am,â€ Lester went on to say this about Sierra Club: â€œThey rockâ€¦.They are allies and defenders of our islands and I am grateful for all that they do and for the people that serve on the SC boards.â€
[Not to put too fine a point on it, but MauiTime has repeatedly asked Lester and his boss Shan Tsutsui for details on the kinds of crops Mahi Pono intends to plant, for an explanation on the seeming difference in the companyâ€™s stated Hawaiâ€˜i growing philosophy (food security) and parent company Pomona Farmingâ€™s California commodity crop activity (almond trees), for detailed maps of the land purchased, for interviews with company principals, and for details on when an open community meeting might be held. Still no answers.]
[Also, political junkies may be scratching their heads at the strange bedfellows these bills are making. Stalwart A&B supporter J. Kalani English supporting an anti-big agriculture bill? Mahi Pono booster and fierce activist Tiare Lawrence supporting the same legislation as her former political opponent Kyle Yamashita? Oy.]
Update: When Lawrence read this comment, she threw a texting tantrum, writing: â€œIf you knew anything about me you would know that I do not support holdover permits. What u published was false information.â€ However, when I responded by asking if she was therefore saying that she did not support the Mahi Pono-favored legislation introduced by her former political opponent, she disappeared.
Weâ€™re not alone in asking questions: DeCoite, one of the few farmers serving in the state legislature, said sheâ€™s perplexed by Mahi Pono. â€œThere are a lot of gray areas that Mahi Pono needs to clarify,â€ she said. â€œThey havenâ€™t answered many questions. They keep saying, â€˜Just trust us.â€™ And I say, â€˜Trust no one.â€™ Not until you get all the facts.â€
South Maui Rep. Tina Wildberger supports DeCoiteâ€™s bill
Newly elected South Maui Rep. Tina Wildberger also supports DeCoiteâ€™s bill. â€œItâ€™s not my desire to subvert Mahi Ponoâ€™s efforts,â€ she said in an interview. â€œBut I also donâ€™t want to greenlight the A&B-style â€˜take everything and leave nothing.â€™ I promised my community that I would not be an automatic â€˜yesâ€™ person to the establishment and the old ways of doing business.â€
However, resolving these diametrically-opposed bills will probably involve an age-old method of doing political business: the backroom deal. Those familiar with the situation say Mahi Pono wants to know what itâ€™s going to take to keep the opposition at bay. Such a negotiation will most likely require a lot more transparency on Mahi Ponoâ€™s part in outlining exactly what the corporation has planned for Maui â€“ and its water.