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Three bills would impact life in West Maui

By Staff | Feb 13, 2020

HONOLULU – The 2020 Hawaii State Legislature opened Jan. 15, and the 25 senators and 51 representatives are now absorbed in the complicated, ever-evolving process. It’s a foreign land, speaking a language difficult for the common citizen to comprehend.

There are, however, any number of websites available on the world-wide-web to help Google-through its chambers on Oahu during the 30th Legislative Session, including, but certainly not limited to, capital.hawaii.gov, legiscan.com/HI, portal.ehawaii.gov/government/hawaii-legislature/citizens-guide-to-legislative-process/ and lrb.hawaii.gov/par/.

Navigating through the oft-time choppy channels of bills introduced, hearing dates called, testimony deadlines, laterals, floor votes and crossovers is no smooth sail.

At this juncture, West Siders should be aware of three bills on the drawing board that will have an impact on every one of us, from the mountain to the ocean and laterally from Ukumehame north. We are all connected in the 21st century by the very real threat of wildfire. House Bill 2646 and Companion Senate Bill 2828 have been introduced to offer an additional layer of protection in this climate-challenged world.

HB 2518 adds another piece to the fire protection puzzle, incorporating the use of reclaimed water to the mix.

Firstly, the legislature acknowledges that in October 2019, brushfires burned an estimated 4,100 acres of land in West Maui.

The county added to the stats, with the mayor’s communication director, Brian Perry, offering a wider coverage statement of the loss.

“Maui County,” he said, “had 25,000 acres burned in wildfires last year, more than six times the 4,000 acres burned in 2018.”

HB 2646 is a Bill for an Act Relating to Water, and the introduction of “SECTION ONE” is an easy read.

“The legislature finds that water should be retained in reservoirs for the public’s health, safety and welfare by having fresh water available for fire safety purposes. In 2019, West Maui was hit with a number of large wildfires. It is important that there be water in the former plantation reservoirs so that there is quicker access to fresh water to control fires. Helicopters can retrieve the fresh water in reservoirs quicker than going to the ocean. Also, using ocean water to put out fires results in damage to flora and fauna. Utilizing ocean water also requires the closure of major thoroughfares.

“The legislature further finds that there are a number of key reservoirs that are currently not filled with water. Examples of those reservoirs include Mahinahina reservoir, Kahoma reservoir, Makila reservoir, Olowalu reservoir and Ukumehame reservoir. If key reservoirs have adequate water in them, then the fresh reservoir water can be used for fire safety.”

The language of the bill is not scant. There are pages of definitions, conditions, rules and policies that follow in an effort to protect this important public resource. It’s all there.

The Board of Land and Natural Resources is charged with the responsibility of working with the county governments, Hawaii Emergency Management Agency and owners to use reservoir water for fire safety.

SB 2828 was introduced by Gilbert S.C. Keith-Agaran, Fifth District, and the language is similar to its companion bill on the House floor.

The senator was candid, knowledgeable and responsive to queries from the Lahaina News.

“Whatever residents think about the Plantation Era, one thing that the community no longer has is the use of sugar or pineapple equipment, reservoirs and people in fighting brush fires. While the former farming operations and the new agricultural tract landowners may no longer have an active use for reservoirs on their property, there may be value in using them for emergencies,” he advised.

“SB 2828 and HB 2646 (introduced at my request by Speaker Scott Saiki) was suggested by some former sugar and pineapple farm/plantation managers, including coffee farmer Kimo Falconer, who recall how reservoirs used to be available as a resource for the Fire Department helicopter (and sometimes DLNR’s foresters and their helicopter contractors) in battling wildfires.

“I also observed that in the recent brush fire incidents that the former plantation reservoirs might be closer in proximity to a fire than the ocean and save first-responders time in getting water to drop on the hot spots. The bill proposes that DLNR and Hawaii Emergency Management consider whether it makes prudent sense to keep some water in reservoirs for emergency use.”

SB 2828 passed first reading and was subsequently referred to the Senate committees on Water and Land (WTL); Public Safety, Intergovernmental and Military Affairs (PSM); and Judiciary. The hearing was held last week Thursday, Feb. 5.

PSM recommended that the measure be passed, unamended as did WTL.

Testimony was submitted, and there were those voices speaking in favor of and against the legislation.

“Major opposition to the bills came from the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and Earth Justice. They basically objected to the proposed amendment of the Water Code to recognize use of water stored in reservoirs as a reasonable/beneficial use. They prefer the current practice of a case-by-case determination by the Commission on Water Resource Management (CWRM) on what water uses should be allowed and asked that the committees ‘hold’ (which in legislative parlance means to formally kill the bill in committee).

“In other words,” the senator summarized, “the fires experienced by West, Central and Upcountry Maui are not important enough to deal with in a reasonable and cooperative way. But how a bill is understood by legislators unfamiliar with the background and purpose for a measure is determined by the testimony submitted and by who comes to Oahu for the hearing. There were only a few pieces of testimony from Maui residents.”

The Department of Fire & Public Safety supported SB 2828. It “finds that water should be retained in reservoirs for the public’s health, safety and welfare by having fresh water available for fire safety purposes,” Fire Chief David Thyne wrote last month.

Others testifying in favor of the bill were Warren Watanabe, Maui County Farm Bureau; Mahi Pono, a Maui Farming Company; and Falconer, MauiGrown Coffee.

Falconer was specific in his summary: “West Maui is in a situation where none of the former sugar plantation reservoirs are holding water largely due to the CWRM rulings that has affected diverted water to no longer flow to this infrastructure. Most of the native forest lands and former sugar lands that lie fallow are inaccessible by ground crews to fight brush fires. Maui Fire Department must use helicopters to dump water for fire control.

“Due to the recent loss of water to these reservoirs,” Falconer continued, “the air crews must pull water from the ocean or even private swimming pools. Saltwater is harmful to the soil, and our native forests and ocean proximity is often too far to reasonably fight a high altitude or otherwise remote blaze. We are very lucky not to have injuries from recent fires. Most of these reservoirs, once filled, can have the water redirected back into the streams if need be.”

The House Bill fared differently in its hearings, passing out of committee with amendments.

Rep, Tina Wildberger, 11th District, serves on the House Water, Land & Hawaiian Affairs Committee, hearing the legislation last Thursday, and it passed out of committee with amendments.

Wildberger observed: “The intent behind the bill was noble, to include fire safety as an allowable use of reservoir water, which is a public trust resource. In theory, this would make it quicker and easier to contain fires, the fires that so frequently plague our fallow hillsides. However, the DLNR had some concerns that it would be contrary to the dam safety law, and some organizations like OHA and Earthjustice were concerned about stream diversion and water banking.”

“I tend toward caution,” Wildberger concluded, “when any water bill comes up that large land owners support and conservation groups oppose.”

Perry reported the county’s stance: “Mayor Victorino said he supports the measures, especially for firefighting and other public purposes.”

The House and Senate bills will continue on their way through the chambers.

Agaran explained what’s next.

“Both bills need to have committee reports voted on the floor. A majority of the House would need to approve it going forward to the Finance Committee for another hearing and another floor vote before the crossover deadline of March 5th. The Senate process is the same with a floor vote and then the Judiciary Committee taking it up before the deadline. After crossover, the other chamber will have to consider the bills.”

Testimony is still being taken.

HB 2518 is another article for next week.

Introduced by West and South Maui Rep. Angus McKelvey, he said it “will help the county finally carry through on the promises to utilize R-1 water from the wastewater treatment plant to recharge Crater Reservoir and other defunct reservoirs, which is a critical for irrigation, landscaping and fire-fighting.”