WAILUKU — Hundreds of people attended a protest on Maui in support of restoring water to four streams in central Maui.
The event at the State Building in Wailuku on Tuesday was organized by Hui o Na Wai Eha group, The Maui News reported Wednesday.
The nonprofit group planned the rally before the state Commission on Water Resource Management meets next month to hear closing arguments on whether to restore water flows to four rivers and streams.
For decades, sugar cane plantations have diverted water from Waihee River, Waiehu Stream, Wailuku River and Waikapu Stream to irrigate cane fields in the arid plains of central Maui.
Hui o Na Wai Eha first petitioned to restore stream and river flows in 2003, arguing it was important for river and ocean ecosystem health. They say Native Hawaiians need stream water restored to be able to farm taro, the staple crop of the traditional Hawaiian diet.
Alexander & Baldwin, which ran Hawaii’s last sugar plantation in central Maui, stopped growing sugar in 2016 after being in the business for about 150 years. It sold its Maui cane fields to agricultural company Mahi Pono in December for $262 million.
Mahi Pono, which is a joint venture between California-based Pomona Farming and Canada’s Public Sector Pension Investment Board, plans to grow a diverse range of crops. It wants water diversions to continue.
Some stream flows have been restored since the 2003 petition filing, but the closure of the sugar cane plantation prompted the commission to revisit in-stream flow standards.
Several speakers at the rally compared protecting water rights to Native Hawaiian efforts to protect the summit of Hawaii’s tallest mountain, Mauna Kea. Protesters on Mauna Kea have blocked construction crews from building a telescope there since July, saying the summit is sacred.
“What the Mauna has taught me is that we can … We can make a difference,” said speaker Kahele Dukelow.
Rally organizers raised concerns that Mahi Pono has indicated it wants to reopen the part of the case where the various sides present evidence to the commission. The company’s attorney has said it may want to do so because Mahi Pono has different plans for the land and water than Alexander & Baldwin.
The plaintiffs say reopening the evidentiary portion of the case would “derail” a long process that is nearing completion and be detrimental to both the community and streams.
Mahi Pono’s intent is to reach an agreement, said Shan Tsutsui, vice president of operations.
“As we work to transition former sugar cane land into diversified agriculture that will increase local food production and help to achieve food security, we are also fully committed to improving efficiency and implementing technology to better manage our irrigation systems,” Tsutsui said.