HONOLULU (CN) - Water diversions from more than 200 streams in East Maui threaten the survival of wetland taro farming, traditional Hawaiian farmers claim in court.
Farmers Healoha Carmichael and Lezley Jacintho and Native Hawaiian nonprofit Na Moku Aupuni O Koolau Hui sued the state, Maui County, a sugar company and others in state court on Friday, claiming the defendants' water diversions hurt farming of kalo - the Hawaiian word for taro.
Also sued are the state's Department of Land and Resources, real estate development and sugar farmer Alexander & Baldwin Inc., East Maui Irrigation Co., and Alexander & Baldwin sugar-farming subsidiary Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co.
"The lack of stream flow threatens the survival of Hawaiian traditional and customary practices and is particularly oppressive for wetland taro farmers, who require certain minimum volumes and temperatures of water to ensure the health and vitality of their crops," the taro farmers claim in the complaint.
They claim that the water diversions also hurt gathering from East Maui streams and coastal fishing, as is evident from the "decline in population of oopu (Hawaiian stream gobies), hihiwai (snails) and opae (prawns) in the streams as well as changes in fish population off the coast."
The decrease in native species allows invasive plants to flourish where the water no longer flows, the complaint states.
The East Maui watershed host 159 rare and endangered plant species and 13 native birds, 12 of them endemic to Maui.
Taro cultivation and consumption is central to Hawaiian culture. It plays a vital role in cultural kipuka - places where Hawaiians maintain a close relationship with the land. It is so vital that even the Hawaiian term ohana (family) is derived from the Hawaiian word oha, which is a kalo (taro) shoot.
The defendant Bureau of Land and Natural Resources in 2000 issued four annual revocable permits to A&B and its subsidiary, East Maui Irrigation (EMI) Co. The permits, renewable on a month-to-month basis, authorized EMI to divert water in Koolau Forest Reserve in Honomanu, Huelo, Keanae and Nahiku areas. The diverted water supports the operations of another A&B subsidiary, Hawaii Commercial & Sugar Company in Central Maui.
The farmers claim that A&B has been diverting water from East Maui streams for more than 100 years via "complex system of ditches, tunnels and flumes" to irrigate the HC&S sugar plantation in Central Maui.
In 2001, A&B and EMI applied for a 30-year lease to continue their water diversions. Maui Now and Na Moku challenged the legality of the application based on eight issues, including the state's legal obligation to determine the effects of diverting water from the four protected areas before issuing any license.
In 2003, the Hawaii Supreme Court affirmed in part and dismissed in part the eight issues Maui Now and Na Moku raised, concluding that an environmental assessment must be prepared to determine whether it's in the state's best interest to authorize the diversion of water from East Maui streams.
But the farmers claim the Bureau of Land and Natural Resources has failed to complete an environmental assessment since 1987.
It group asks the court to void the permits issued to A&B and its subsidiaries, provided that 8.4 million gallons of water a day may still be diverted and delivered to the County of Maui for public use.
The permits authorize the use of 33,000 acres of state-ceded lands to divert an average of 165 million gallons of water daily.
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