Maui Fires Renew Centuries-old Tensions Over Water Rights. The Streams Are Sacred To Hawaiians

LAHAINA, Hawaii (AP) — Shortly after the ignition of the deadliest U.S. wildfire in additional than a century, a developer of land round a threatened Maui group urgently requested state officers for permission to divert water from streams to struggle the rising inferno.

West Maui Land Firm, Inc. mentioned it will definitely obtained approval from the Hawaii fee that oversees water administration, however prompt the state physique didn’t act shortly sufficient and first directed the corporate to speak with a downstream taro farmer who depends on stream water, in response to letters by an organization government obtained by The Related Press and different information shops.

Group members, together with Native Hawaiian farmers, say the water the developer needed for its reservoirs wouldn’t have made a distinction within the fires. The reservoirs don’t provide Maui County’s hearth hydrants, and firefighting helicopters — which might have dipped into the reservoirs for water — had been grounded by excessive winds.

Sunya Schlea ties up roses to crosses along the Lahaina Bypass in Lahaina, Hawaii, Tuesday, Aug. 22, 2023, to honor the victims killed in a wildfire. Two weeks after the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century swept through the Maui community of Lahaina, authorities say anywhere between 500 and 1,000 people remain unaccounted for — a staggering number for officials facing huge challenges to determine how many of those perished and how many may have made it to safety but haven't checked in. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)Sunya Schlea ties up roses to crosses alongside the Lahaina Bypass in Lahaina, Hawaii, Tuesday, Aug. 22, 2023, to honor the victims killed in a wildfire. Two weeks after the deadliest U.S. wildfire in additional than a century swept by way of the Maui group of Lahaina, authorities say anyplace between 500 and 1,000 folks stay unaccounted for — a staggering quantity for officers going through large challenges to find out what number of of these perished and what number of might have made it to security however have not checked in. (AP Photograph/Jae C. Hong)

The Aug. 8 hearth that killed no less than 115 folks befell under West Maui Land Firm’s developments and the Hawaiian communities that depend on the water. However the dispute over water entry through the blaze has sparked new rigidity in a struggle that dates to the mid-1800s, when unfair water distribution practices took root when plantations had been established throughout colonization.

“This can be a 2023 rendition of what’s been taking place in Lahaina for hundreds of years,” mentioned Kapua‘ala Sproat, director of the Native Hawaiian regulation middle on the College of Hawaii.

Glenn Tremble, who wrote the letters, informed the AP by way of textual content that the corporate didn’t share the letters with the media and didn’t need to distract from West Maui’s losses. AP obtained the correspondence from varied folks acquainted with the dispute.

“All we’ve got requested is for the flexibility to make water obtainable for hearth prevention and suppression, to assist folks whereas we get well and to rebuild what we’ve got misplaced,” he wrote.

The complicated push-pull over Maui stream diversions remembers different battles over water rights in drought-stricken Western states which have pitted Native American tribes in opposition to farmers and farmers in opposition to city areas.

FILE - A man reacts as he sits on the Lahaina historic banyan tree damaged by a wildfire on Aug. 11, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii. With a housing crisis that has priced out many Native Hawaiians as well as families that have been there for decades, concerns are rising that Maui could become the latest example of “climate gentrification,” when it becomes harder for local people to afford housing in safer areas after a climate-amped disaster. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

FILE – A person reacts as he sits on the Lahaina historic banyan tree broken by a wildfire on Aug. 11, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii. With a housing disaster that has priced out many Native Hawaiians in addition to households which have been there for many years, considerations are rising that Maui might turn out to be the newest instance of “local weather gentrification,” when it turns into tougher for native folks to afford housing in safer areas after a climate-amped catastrophe. (AP Photograph/Rick Bowmer, File)

Native Hawaiians have lengthy fought to guard what they take into account a sacred useful resource. Stream diversions continued even after the plantations closed, and booming growth contributed to West Maui’s arid circumstances. The West Maui Land Firm’s subdivision — together with multimillion-dollar gated properties that use diverted water — was untouched by the Lahaina fires, famous Native Hawaiians who stay off the streams and farm taro, a cultural staple.

“At one time, Lahaina was recognized to be very verdant and really lush,” mentioned Blossom Feiteira, a Native Hawaiian cultural practitioner and Lahaina native. Hawaiians revere water a lot and its abundance was why Lahaina grew to become the capital of the Hawaiian kingdom from 1820 to 1845, she mentioned.

When sugar cane and pineapple fields from the plantation period shut down within the Nineteen Eighties and Nineties, the water was redirected to gated communities with lush inexperienced lawns and swimming swimming pools, she mentioned. Overgrown brown brush and invasive grass cropped up round these developments.

“There was resentment locally about that form of image,” Feiteira mentioned.

In one of many letters, West Maui Land Firm mentioned the state Fee on Water Useful resource Administration shouldn’t prioritize “one particular person’s farm” over combating a wind-whipped hearth.

“Nobody is joyful there was water within the streams whereas our properties, our companies, our lands, and our lives had been diminished to ash,” the corporate mentioned. The letter mentioned the corporate requested “approval to divert extra water from the streams so we might retailer as a lot water as attainable for hearth management” at 1 p.m. on the day of the fireplace, however that they had been directed to first inquire with a downstream taro farmer.

At about 6 p.m., the fee accepted the diversion of extra water, the letter mentioned.

West Maui Land’s suggestion that Kaleo Manuel, first deputy of the fee, delayed the discharge of stream water has struck a nerve amongst Native Hawaiians and others who say the corporate is making him a scapegoat and utilizing the tragedy to take but extra water.

A Lahaina stream sustains Keʻeaumoku Kapu’s taro patches on his ancestral lands deep in Kauaula Valley within the mountains above Lahaina. He fled the city on the afternoon of the fireplace as flames approached and spent an evening in his truck. The hearth didn’t get near his dwelling and farm within the valley, however in 2018 space residents used water from the stream to struggle a wildfire, he mentioned.

He referred to as West Maui Land’s characterization of the stream diversions “bogus” and disingenuous.

“They’ll do something to get it,” Kapu mentioned of the water.

The corporate is “attempting to make use of this extremely tough time to get a authorized and monetary benefit, particularly over their water assets, when that’s one thing they weren’t capable of accomplish legally earlier than the fireplace,” mentioned Sproat, of the Native Hawaiian regulation middle.

The letters brought on such a commotion that the state Division of Land and Pure Assets re-assigned Manuel, drawing a lawsuit from West Maui residents decrying the transfer. The division mentioned in an announcement that Manuel’s reassignment didn’t counsel he did something fallacious, however would enable officers to concentrate on Maui.

Manuel couldn’t instantly be reached for remark. Group teams urged supporters to go to Manuel’s Honolulu workplace final week to bestow lei upon him in gratitude for his efforts.

Conflicts over stream diversions should not only a West Maui subject. Quickly after the fires began, the state lawyer normal’s workplace filed a petition with the state Supreme Court docket blaming an environmental court docket decide’s caps on East Maui stream diversions for an absence of water for firefighting.

The court docket issued a ruling Thursday denying the state’s request to to not let the decide alter the quantity of water to be diverted.

“That is what occurs when there’s actually not sufficient water anymore,” mentioned Kamanamaikalani Beamer, a former trustee of the Fee on Water Useful resource Administration, calling streams “the veins that refill our aquifers.”

“Water brings collectively just like the multitude of pursuits — financial, cultural,” he mentioned. “However it’s as a result of nobody can simply create it out of nothing.”

Kelleher reported from Honolulu.