Homesteaders Threaten to Sue DOA over Ranch Water Agreement

Lawyers insist Environmental Impact Statement necessary

When the Molokai Irrigation System was built in the 1960’s its original intent was to help rehabilitate Hawaiians as partial fulfillment of the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act. Nearly 50 years later, the Hawaiian homesteaders are still fighting to restore their right to the island’s fresh water sources.

The Molokai Irrigation System Water Users Advisory Board met Wednesday, July 18, to discuss a draft agreement between Molokai Properties Ltd (Molokai Ranch) and the Department of Agriculture (DOA).

The current agreement allows Molokai Ranch to use the Molokai Irrigation System (MIS) to transport water from Well 17 and mountain sources in Central Molokai to the Kaluakoi Hotel area.

The draft agreement would allow Molokai Ranch to extend its use of the MIS to the year 2011, with an option for renewal to 2016. Molokai homesteaders are questioning the fairness of this agreement.

During the meeting the public was allowed to address the DOA and the MIS advisory board with their testimonies and comments. The homesteaders voiced various concerns regarding the proposed amendment and the use non-agricultural use of the MIS.

According to the original agreement, the Hawaiian Homesteaders are supposed to have two-thirds right to the MIS. The homesteaders have taken extensive measures to protect that right.

The Native Hawaiian Legal Coalition (NHLC), Senator Clayton Hee and Molokai Planning Commission DeGray Vanderbilt have also voiced support for homesteaders’ fight for water.

The Molokai Homesteaders Farmers’ Alliance (MHFA) solicited the NHLC to investigate dealings by Molokai Ranch and the DOA. Alan Murakami, a NHLC attorney, was present at the meeting and testified on behalf of the MHFA.

According to Murakami, before Molokai Ranch and the DOA can come to an agreement they must perform an environmental assessment. Under Hawaii state law (HRS chapter 343-5(1)), an environmental assessment must be done any time an agency proposes to use state lands. The MIS is built on state land and its primary purpose is to irrigate Hawaiian homestead land.

Makamuri informed the DOA that if it does not take corrective measures to uphold the HRS 343 and the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act, the MHFA would seek judicial remedies.

An environmental assessment was not required for the previous agreement because it predated HRS 343. According to Murakami an environmental impact statement (EIS) is necessary for any agreement formed now.

Murakami consulted the courts, who issued the following statement: “We entertain no doubt that the pertinent statutory provisions would mandate the preparation of an EIS if Kaluakoi’s application for ‘rental space’ in the System’s facilities were presented to the Board now.”

Makamuri says that a precedent for this was established recently over the continuation of water lease in East Maui. Despite that the water diversion systems had been in use for the past 130 years, Judge Elizabeth Hifo determined that the environmental and cultural impacts had to be assessed as though starting a new lease from the beginning.

Statements made by Molokai’s Junior Kaholoaa provided insight on how the MIS may be impacting the island’s environment. A fisherman, hunter and gatherer, Kaholoaa goes back to the mountains often. During his recent trips to the forest, he has noticed that rivers are much smaller than they used to be and that many of the native plants are dying.

“Old Hawaiians put water back into the river. My concern is that there is no putting back, there is only take,” said Kaholoa`a.

Molokai community member John Trinidad  spoke in favor of the proposed amendment to the MIS, stating that Molokai Ranch should be allowed to use the MIS not only to supply water to Kaluakoi, but to future developments also. He believes bringing more people to the island would benefit Molokai farmers because they would have a larger market and demographic to sell to.

Lynn DeCoite, MHFA president and sweet potato farmer, worries about water availability and quality. She says that recently her water pressure has been low and had high amounts of saline– both signs of decreasing water levels.

DeCoite also wants finances taken into consideration. According to her, the proposed amendment would essentially have Hawaiian homesteaders subsidizing the cost of transporting water to the Ranch.

Homesteader Glenn Teves also said that MIS finances have been mismanaged. The DOA stated that the MIS is in need of fixing in numerous areas. However funds are not being spent on repairs according to Teves.

“There is a surplus of money, but we [Molokai farmers] don’t benefit from it – it goes right into the State Irrigation Fund,” said Teves.

DeCoit, Teves and others took their concerns to Senator Clayton Hee who drew up a bill (HCR 342) requesting state auditor to conduct a financial and management audit of the DOA’s operation of the Molokai Irrigation System.

The request was approved.  Hee and representatives from the state’s auditing agency were present at the meeting.

“I believe that for the DOA to move forward on the proposal would be premature and not in the best interest of MIS families and consumers,” said Hee. “If necessary I will convene a hearing at the state capital on this issue.”

DeGray Vanderbilt, Chair of the Molokai Planning Commission, said that, based on politics, the agreement would likely be approved by the DOA. He said that all ten DOA members were appointed by Governor Linda Lingle who has voiced her support for the Ranch’s development plans.

Vanderbilt said he had no problem with the Ranch using the MIS to transport water as long as any the agreement was “approved by the Molokai homestead communities and Molokai’s MIS Advisory Board.” He said it was obvious the current draft “needs a lot of work.”

While the draft has not been officially signed into agreement, DOA director Duane Okamoto said that the DOA and the Ranch are both satisfied with its current content. DOA has final approval authority for accepting the agreement.

The amendment being proposed is less restrictive than the 1975 original. Among other things, the new agreement would allow Molokai Ranch to use the MIS to transport water to areas other than Kaluakoi.


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