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Lahaina Fire Prompts a Shift in Maui’s Long-Running Water Fights

Hours before the wildfire became an inferno that wiped out the historic Hawaiian town of Lahaina, officials at the West Maui Land Company reached out to the state with an urgent request.

The company, a real estate developer that supplies water to areas southeast of Lahaina, took note of the dangerous combination of high winds and drought-parched grasses Maui was facing. It asked for permission to fill up one of its private reservoirs in case firefighters needed it.

But there was no active wildfire in the area at that time, and state officials, apparently concerned that the diversion could affect water allocations to a nearby farmer, took several hours to approve the request, according to the company. In the interim, a brush fire that had been contained that morning flared up once again and swept through Lahaina, burning everything in its path.

It is unlikely that filling up the private reservoir would have changed the course of the Lahaina wildfire, state officials say, and winds were so high that day that helicopter crews would have been unable to reach it. But the incident is causing a political uproar, the latest in a long-running debate over how Hawaii’s water is doled out among the state’s competing interests — real estate companies, large farms, tourism facilities and residents.

“We need to act faster in an emergency,” the West Maui Land Company wrote to the state water regulator in the wake of the Lahaina blaze, the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century.

The fire prompted a series of moves from Gov. Josh Green’s administration in recent days to break what he called an “impasse” over water allocation, temporarily loosening regulations on key streams on the island of Maui and petitioning the state Supreme Court to expand access to others to raise the amount of water available to fight wildfires.

Last week, his administration said it was “redeploying” a top official at the state Commission on Water Resource Management, the agency blamed for delaying the diversion to the private West Maui reservoir.

The official, M. Kaleo Manuel, was regarded as someone responsive to environmental groups and Indigenous residents who want to preserve stream water for traditional uses and limit water diversions by private companies. The state said that the job change for Mr. Manuel, who along with state agency officials, has declined to comment on the issue, “does not suggest that First Deputy Manuel did anything wrong.”

In an interview with The New York Times, Governor Green acknowledged the challenge of balancing the competing demands for water.

“But in my opinion, we tipped too far one way and people became gun-shy and they didn’t want to use water for anything,’’ he said.

Water has long been a point of tension in Hawaii, where European and American owners of sugar cane plantations altered the landscape in the 1800s to irrigate their crops. Now, with Maui’s growth as one of the world’s most desirable places to vacation, with landscaped resorts, pools and golf courses, water systems are strained.

In Maui, much of the fresh water comes from a series of streams that run out of the mountains and eventually into the ocean. Small traditional farmers tap these streams, as do huge commercial farms and luxury subdivisions. Water is also pumped from the ground through wells.

Advocates who want water preserved for Native Hawaiian cultural uses, such as the growing of taro, a staple of traditional meals, say the governor is using the fire to undo decades of necessary limits on water use, paving the way for more building across Hawaii.

“It is appearing to be increasingly clear that the Green administration intends to remake Hawaii, stripping native Hawaiians and the public of their most basic protection against the exploitation of land and water,” said Jonathan Likeke Scheuer, a water policy consultant who has served in several government roles related to land use and Native Hawaiian affairs.

“He is removing anyone standing in his way,’’ he said.

The water supply of Lahaina, where the fire’s destruction was centered, comes from a system operated by Maui County that is managed separately from the West Maui Land Company’s operations.

Firefighters in Lahaina reported that their hoses went nearly dry at the height of the blaze, a problem that the county attributed not to basic water supply but to a precipitous drop in water pressure caused by the destruction of so much piping during the height of the fire.

Glenn Tremble, an executive with West Maui Land, said firefighters began tapping into their potable water system to fight the blaze after the Lahaina system lost pressure. But that water comes from wells, not the reservoir system. The reservoir water would be accessible mostly to helicopter-based fire crews, which were unable to fly in the high winds on the day of the fire.

Mr. Tremble said he believed that firefighters used hundreds of thousands of gallons from the company’s hydrants on the southern edge of the fire’s final footprint, but declined to discuss details saying he wanted the focus to be on helping the people affected by the fires.

West Maui Land manages three water companies and develops residential subdivisions and sells homes.

The fire eventually spread southward toward one of the company’s neighborhoods, but those houses all appear to have survived.

The rapid spread of the blaze, fed by hurricane-force winds, raises questions about whether it may have overwhelmed firefighters no matter how much water was available. Governor Green said the scarcity of water reserves did not inhibit firefighters “in the moment” that the fire pushed through Lahaina.

The state’s fresh water legally resides in a public trust for the benefit of the people of Hawaii. But how the water actually gets to people is a convoluted and deeply politicized process.

A century ago, sugar plantations owned and operated a system of irrigation ditches and reservoirs on Maui that were loosely regulated. After the farms shut down, many of these systems were bought by private companies or real estate developers.

Starting in the 1970s, a series of state court rulings established priorities for water protection that include the exercise of Native Hawaiians’ traditional and customary rights, which cover taro farming.

But Indigenous advocates and environmentalists are constantly tangling with water companies over how much the companies are permitted to divert.

Wayne Tanaka, director of the Sierra Club of Hawaii, said conservationists had supported the use of water for fire reserves. But he said he worried that water companies and large landowners use fire protection as an excuse to hoard water for commercial purposes.

“No one has opposed the need to reserve water for firefighting, but we want to know how much they actually use for that purpose,’’ Mr. Tanaka said.

Some environmentalists say there are several unanswered questions about the incident involving the West Maui Land Company, including whether the company’s request to fill up its reservoir was prompted by a request to use that water from the fire department — which would have indicated how seriously fire officials considered the need for more water.

Before granting permission — and hours before the blaze had engulfed the town — the state water agency had asked the company whether the fire department had made such a request. But the company did not indicate in its correspondence with the state, a copy of which was reviewed by The Times, whether fire officials had done so.

In its initial delay in approving the request, the state had asked the company to first secure the approval of a nearby farmer, who used the water supply to grow traditional crops. But because power supplies had been disrupted during the high winds, the company said, it was unable to reach the farmer. With the escalation of the fire, the state ultimately approved the diversion anyway.

Every year, the stakes of the water debate get higher, as the potential for lucrative land development attracts investors from around the world.

In 2018, a venture backed by a Canadian pension plan purchased 41,000 acres of farmland in central Maui.

The venture, called Mahi Pono, is currently using the land to farm limes, macadamia nuts, coffee and other crops.

In 2019, it acquired partial ownership of East Maui Irrigation, a company that provides water to farmers and residents.

A state judge had placed tighter limits on the amount of water that East Maui Irrigation could divert from streams, after the Sierra Club raised objections.

But the day after the Lahaina fire, the state asked the Hawaii Supreme Court to take up the case and loosen restrictions on the streams that East Maui Irrigation draws from in order to bolster future firefighting efforts.

Mahi Pono and the Canadian pension plan declined to comment on the water issues in Hawaii.

The area of West Maui, where Lahaina is located, only recently came under a much more extensive network of state water management control. The new regulatory structure meant that water companies and landowners would need to undergo an extensive permitting process, which involves public input, to draw water. Water permits can be regularly re-evaluated.

But in the wake of the fire, the West Maui Land Company has asked the Green administration to suspend the state’s water management of that part of the island.

Mr. Tanaka of the Sierra Club said he worried that doing away with state oversight would turn the region’s water situation into “the Wild West,” where companies “can take as much as they want.”

But Governor Green, in an online interview last week with Civil Beat, a Hawaii news site, said it was likely that the state would modify its oversight of West Maui’s water as part of broader efforts to ensure more water was available for fighting fires.

“The world has changed,’’ he said. “It is a drier planet. We have to have a much more honest discussion about water.”

Kirsten Noyes contributed research.

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