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Energy the nexus of everything: June 2010 Archives

The latest Water Commission rulings have now come out on how to distribute water resources on the island of Maui, Hawaii. These rulings discuss how to distribute water from diversion ditches owned and operated by the last sugar-cane plantation of Hawaii Commercial and Sugar (HC&S) who is by far the largest water user on the island. The historical and future contexts of Maui are important in understanding why commercial and native Hawaiian interests have a very difficult time becoming aligned in any significant way.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s settlers to Hawaii established large plantations that over time grew sugar cane, pineapples and other crops. The best land for growing these crops generally lies on the leeward side of the islands that are relatively dry, sometimes almost desert-like. As a result of prevailing Northeasterly winds, the water is precipitated out of the Pacific clouds on the eastern sides of the islands before reaching the western portions of the islands. In order to provide the water required for large agricultural plantations, a series of diversions ditches over 100 miles long along takes water from the windward side of East Maui around to the central valley for the sugar-cane plantation.

However, over the last few decades, the plantations on all Hawaiian islands have been shutting down due to having difficulty competing economically on the global market. The HC&S plantation is the last of a dying breed in Hawaii, and many environmental and pro-native groups wouldn't be surprised if the plantation shut down tomorrow – and for the most part they'd prefer that ending. As plantations on the islands have shut down the question arises as to how to allocate the water that previously diverted for agriculture. The case of reallocating some water from the previously fully diverted Waiahole Stream on Oahu has potentially set a precedent for using water for the purposes of native rights and environmental services. The native rights are primarily concerned with growing taro. Because taro is normally grown in flooded fields and patches that reside adjacent to streams and divert water into the fields before returning most of the water. Some species of taro can be grown without flooded fields, but those varieties are less common.

However influential the ruling for the partial reallocation of diverted water in the Waiahole case, it concerned water becoming available from the closing of a sugar plantation, Oahu Sugar. The water essentially became up for grabs. The cases on Maui for the Ne Wai Eha (West Maui) and East Maui concern a sugar plantation that is still operating. Furthermore, the push for renewable fuels in the US have led to federal grants going to investigate the use of Maui lands for biofuel development. This added pressure from the federal government may overcome any economic and legal pressures to either shut down HC&S the sugar plantation or divert more water to other uses on the island. Other pushes for general energy independence, an abundance of sun and water (when considering the entire island of Maui) generally make Maui as attractive as any location in the US states.

Whatever happens, the allocations of water and land use on Maui are a microcosm of the pressures of industrialized countries trying to make money and renewable energy using large plantations/farms and higher wages than countries like Brazil that also have the requisite natural resources, but currently not the same wage and environmental management pressures.