Friday, April 25, 2014

Settling old water disputes in Central Maui

            Our water law was certainly in the news this week. The decade-old lawsuit pitting Native Hawaiians and environmentalists against corporate institutions that have been part of Maui since the nineteenth century is over.
            Na Wai Eha means “the four waters” of Waikapu Stream, Iao Stream, Waihee River, and the Waiehu Stream. They are the main source of freshwater for central Maui. Long before any of us were around these waters flowed from the green mountains toward the ocean. The first people to divert some of its waters were the Native Hawaiian farmers. Their descendants used the streams to maintain their crops—early cases point out that these diversionary ditches had been around since time immemorial.
            Then came sugar. After the American Civil War cut off America’s industrial cities from the Deep South’s sugar beets, the demand for Hawaiian sugar went through the roof. Sugar plantations and companies sprouted up throughout the islands, including the Wailuku Sugar Company.
            Sugar’s a thirsty crop. Companies started diverting streams into irrigation ditches and reservoirs. By the 1890s, all four streams had been diverted and the Wailuku Sugar Company had control of the water.
Kalo famers took notice. Their crops dried up and wilted away while central Maui turned green with acres of cane. They sued the company. Sugar baron Claus Spreckles himself intervened (his eponymous ditch still runs water through the heart of Wailuku town).
            The farmers argued that the diversion of the Iao Stream was unlawful. The Hawaii Supreme Court ruled in favor of the farmers, but limited their use of the stream at night. The rest of the time the stream could be used by the sugar companies. The farmers may have won their case, but eventually everyone seemed to have forgotten. The sugar companies took more and more water for their crops.
            In the meantime, the Wailuku Sugar Company got into a bitter dispute with the Hawaiian Commercial and Sugar Company. HC&S wanted the water, but had the land. The Wailuku Sugar Company had the water, but less land. They didn’t bury the hatchet and resolve their dispute for more than twenty years, when the Wailuku Sugar Company agreed to sell the water to HC&S. The agreement held out for almost a century.
            The agreement held for decades even after the Wailuku Sugar Company got out of the sugar business and started selling water. HC&S weren’t the only folks buying water. The company started selling water to the county and that brought about the rapid development of South Maui. These days, if you are flushing a toilet or washing your face in Kihei, you are most likely using water from Na Wai Eha. And that’s how it’s been for most of our lives.
Most of us cannot remember a healthy and flowing Waikapu Stream (take a look for yourself at the rocky and dusty streambed as it passes beneath Honoapiilani Highway next to Waiko Road).
            But the farmers struck back. About ten years ago, the Wailuku Sugar Company’s company and HC&S requested their use permits with the water commission when a group of farmers objected. They argued that their traditional and customary rights as Native Hawaiian kalo farmers had been violated, among other things. That started a long controversy.
            While the agreement between the Wailuku Sugar Company and HC&S stayed put, the law had changed dramatically. In the 1970s, the Hawaii Constitution was amended. Waters were no longer just any kind of property. It was held in the public trust for the benefit of all peoples. Native Hawaiians also had their traditional gathering and customary rights protected and recognized by constitutional provisions and a series of cases from the Hawaii Supreme Court. Given these revolutionary changes, the water commission was faced with new duties and tasks. The government now had a big say in the way old companies handled water.
            And so the farmers’ objection turned into a twenty-three-day evidentiary hearing involving 77 witnesses and hundreds of exhibits. The water commission required the companies—now the aptly re-named the Wailuku Water Company and HC&S—to reduce amount of water it had been diverting from two streams, but not the other two.
The case went up on appeal and the Hawaii Supreme Court ruled for the farmers (again). It held that the commission did not adequately consider the now-constitutionally protected rights of Native Hawaiian farmers and their traditional and customary rights.

            The court sent the case back to Maui and after more negotiating, the case settled as we learned this week. The terms of the settlement require the water company to restore water levels to the two remaining streams: Waikapu and Iao. Seems like the deal is going to go through. Kihei won’t lose all its water and maybe we can start to see water flowing underneath the highway in Waikapu.

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Great Ukulele Debate

            Our state has a list of official symbols. “Hawaii Pono’i” is our state song. Our state bird is the nene goose. We even have a state marine mammal—the Hawaiian monk seal. And my personal favorite is the strange fact that black coral is our state “gemstone,” a true first.
            But we don’t have is a musical instrument. The House tried to change that and introduced a bill the ukulele as our official state instrument. Unfortunately, it’s sparked a strange debate. It turned out that there were a number of critics and opponents.
            The backers of the Hawaiian steel guitar wanted recognition claimed that their instrument is more important for Hawaii. The ukulele was just too worldly to be considered Hawaiian. After all, they argued, the ukulele is played in every continent and in a variety of different genres.
The steel guitar group also claimed that it was a truly Hawaiian instrument since its style of play and roots developed here in the islands. They pointed out that the ukulele is simply an immigrant of the Portuguese while the steel guitar was invented by a Hawaiian. As one opponent wrote, making the steel guitar the state instrument “is the PONO thing to do.”
            After a strong showing of opponents, the message and purpose behind the bill changed. Suddenly, the ukulele was no longer a simple instrument that was associated with Hawaii. The bill became a celebration of a world-renown instrument and that it has a special place here in the islands.
            When the bill moved over to the Senate, things got even more bizarre. A committee reported that despite its immense influence and popularity, the ukulele is not the only musical instrument out there. If there is going to be a State musical instrument, it should be one that is “indigenous to the people of Hawaii and important to the native Hawaiian culture.” And with that, the bill was amended dramatically.
            It was no longer a straightforward pronouncement causing all sorts of controversy. Instead, there is going to be a statewide campaign for schoolchildren to decide. There are, however, a few ground rules. First, the contest would be set up in collaboration with the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. Together, the kids and OHA would submit their selections or recommendations to the Legislature in 2015. The instrument “shall be indigenous to the people of the State,” it has to be “important to the native Hawaiian culture,” and the kids can pick more than one. The Legislature even provided a quick list of suggested instruments. At the top of the list was the ukulele followed by the pahu drum, steel guitar, ipu, and the nose flute.
            Seems like a strange controversy. The ukulele, like the nene goose, may have ancestors and relatives elsewhere, but can’t it be considered indigenous too?
            The ukulele’s ancestors are indeed Portuguese. When Portuguese colonized the world, they brought their music. Specifically, they brought along a small, stringed instrument. The generic term for the instrument is the cavaquinho, but there are several types. The Portuguese settled all over the world and brought their cavaquinho with them. In the Atlantic Islands, specifically Madeira, it became known as the machete de braga or the braguinha.
            The instruments headed west to Brazil and found its place in samba music, which is the unique music of Brazil. They went to Africa too. Cape Verde, the Portuguese colony, embraced the instrument and like the Brazilian samba it is an essential part of the musical genres there.
            These were the instruments brought to the islands. It adapted well. You could carry it to a field or strum it on the docks. It was portable, fairly durable, and people liked its squeaky sound. It was this high sound that lead to the name we are most familiar with: the ukulele. Its adaptation also changed the instrument itself. Unlike the Portuguese mini-guitars with steel, wire, or gut strings, the ukulele’s strings are soft and made of nylon—which is much easier to play and makes it far more accessible for people to pick and strum.        
            The early versions of the bill made no distinction between the ukulele, the machete, or the cavaquinho. It did not describe its metamorphosis. Instead, it described how the ukulele “was originally from Portugal” and “popularized by Hawaiian royalty, plantation workers, and musicians.” And maybe that was why it sparked a strange debate in the first place.
            Either way, not everyone is happy with the legislation.
            Last week, the Senate received notice from the House that it disagreed with the amendments, and it this rate, it’s unclear if the bill is going to make it to the end of term. But if it does, the odd debate will continue to rage on.