LAHAINA, HI – Shortly after the ignition of the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century, a developer of land around a threatened Maui community urgently asked state officials for permission to divert water from streams to fight the growing inferno.
West Maui Land Company, Inc. said it eventually received approval from the Hawaii commission that oversees water management, but suggested the state body didn’t act quickly enough and first directed the company to talk with a downstream taro farmer who relies on stream water, according to letters by a company executive obtained by The Associated Press and other news outlets.
Community members, including Native Hawaiian farmers, say the water the developer wanted for its reservoirs would not have made a difference in the fires. The reservoirs don’t supply Maui County’s fire hydrants, and firefighting helicopters – which could have dipped into the reservoirs for water – were grounded by high winds.
The Aug. 8 fire that killed at least 115 people took place below West Maui Land Company’s developments and the Hawaiian communities that rely on the water. But the dispute over water access during the blaze has sparked new tension in a fight that dates to the mid-1800s, when unfair water distribution practices took root with colonization.
“This is a 2023 rendition of what’s been happening in Lahaina for centuries,” said Kapua`ala Sproat, director of the Native Hawaiian law center at the University of Hawaii.
Glenn Tremble, who wrote the letters, told the AP via text that the company didn’t share the letters with the media and didn’t want to distract from West Maui’s losses. AP obtained the correspondence from various people familiar with the dispute.
“All we have asked is for the ability to make water available for fire prevention and suppression, to help people while we recover and to rebuild what we have lost,” he wrote.
The complex push-pull over Maui stream diversions recalls other battles over water rights in drought-stricken Western states that have pitted Native American tribes against farmers and farmers against urban areas.
Native Hawaiians have long fought to protect what they consider a sacred resource. Stream diversions continued even after the plantations closed, and booming development contributed to West Maui’s arid conditions. The West Maui Land Company’s subdivision – including multimillion-dollar gated homes that use diverted water – was untouched by the Lahaina fires, noted Native Hawaiians who live off the streams and farm taro, a cultural staple.
“At one time, Lahaina was known to be very verdant and very lush,” said Blossom Feiteira, a Native Hawaiian cultural practitioner and Lahaina native. Hawaiians revere water so much and its abundance was why Lahaina became the capital of the Hawaiian kingdom from 1820 to 1845, she said.
When sugar cane and pineapple fields from the plantation era shut down in the 1980s and 1990s, the water was redirected to gated communities with lush green lawns and swimming pools, she said. Overgrown brown brush and invasive grass cropped up around these developments.
“There has been resentment in the community about that kind of picture,” Feiteira said.
In one of the letters, West Maui Land Company said the state Commission on Water Resource Management should not prioritize “one individual’s farm” over fighting a wind-whipped fire.
“No one is happy there was water in the streams while our homes, our businesses, our lands, and our lives were reduced to ash,” the company said. The letter said the company requested “approval to divert more water from the streams so we could store as much water as possible for fire control” at 1 p.m. on the day of the fire, but that they were directed to first inquire with a downstream taro farmer.
At about 6 p.m., the commission approved the diversion of more water, the letter said.
West Maui Land’s suggestion that Kaleo Manuel, first deputy of the commission, delayed the release of stream water has struck a nerve among Native Hawaiians and others who say the company is making him a scapegoat and using the tragedy to take yet more water.
A Lahaina stream sustains Keeaumoku Kapu’s taro patches on his ancestral lands deep in Kauaula Valley in the mountains above Lahaina. He fled the town on the afternoon of the fire as flames approached and spent a night in his truck. The fire didn’t get close to his home and farm in the valley, but in 2018 area residents used water from the stream to fight a wildfire, he said.
He called West Maui Land’s characterization of the stream diversions “bogus” and disingenuous.
“They’ll do anything to get it,” Kapu said of the water.
The company is “trying to use this incredibly difficult time to get a legal and financial advantage, especially over their water resources, when that’s something they were not able to accomplish legally before the fire,” said Sproat, of the Native Hawaiian law center.
The letters caused such a commotion that the state Department of Land and Natural Resources re-assigned Manuel, drawing a lawsuit from West Maui residents decrying the move. The department said in a statement that Manuel’s reassignment didn’t suggest he did anything wrong but would allow officials to focus on Maui.
Manuel couldn’t immediately be reached for comment. Community groups urged supporters to go to Manuel’s Honolulu office last week to bestow lei upon him in gratitude for his efforts.
Conflicts over stream diversions are not just a West Maui issue. Soon after the fires started, the state attorney general’s office filed a petition with the state Supreme Court blaming an environmental court judge’s caps on East Maui stream diversions for a lack of water for firefighting.
The court didn’t immediately issue a ruling after hearing arguments Wednesday.
“This is what happens when there’s literally not enough water anymore,” said Kamanamaikalani Beamer, a former trustee of the Commission on Water Resource Management, calling streams “the veins that fill up our aquifers.”
“Water brings together like the multitude of interests – economic, cultural,” he said. “But it’s because no one can just create it out of nothing.”
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