State-Aided Disaster Capitalism?


Governor’s administration targets stream, groundwater protections in the wake of Maui wildfires as water protectors fight back

As people throughout Hawaiʻi and the world came together to support the survivors of the devastating Lahaina wildfires, government and corporate actions quickly gave rise to deep concerns regarding their apparent exploitation of the disaster to roll back water protections long opposed by the landowner and developer community.

First came the “re-deployment” of celebrated Water Commission Deputy Kaleo Manuel on August 16, after a West Maui Land Company official misleadingly suggested that Manuel had delayed the delivery of water needed to fight the Lahaina fires.

West Maui Land Company and its affiliates have a long history of diverting streams for luxurious “gentlemen farms,” at the expense of Maui Komohana (West Maui) kalo farmers, kuleana owners and watersheds.

Under Manuel’s leadership, the water commission had made unprecedented strides in implementing stream and groundwater protections that would have placed additional scrutiny on these companies’ use of water, and forced them to share this public trust resource.

Accordingly, many suspected Manuel’s unexplained removal, and the governor’s subsequent suspension of Maui Komohana water protections, as the opportunistic removal of obstacles to the continued misuse of water by West Maui Land Company and other large-scale consumers in the region.

When the West Maui Land Company’s claims were disproven – water diverted by the company could not have been used in any way to fight the Lahaina fires – these suspicions only grew.

Then, the following week, a smoking gun would demonstrate clear government collusion with a corporate water diverter seeking to exploit the tragedy.

On August 23, the Hawaiʻi Supreme Court heard oral arguments over the state attorney general’s petition for a “writ of mandamus” against environmental court judge Jeffrey Crabtree. The petition sought to overturn Crabtree’s modest cap on the amount of Maui Hikina (East Maui) stream water that could be diverted by real estate investment trust Alexander & Baldwin.

Filed on August 9, the petition declared that “Maui is in peril as it is ravaged by wildfires,” and claimed in several instances that the 31.5 million gallon per day cap on Maui Hikina stream diversions left the island with “not enough water . . . to battle the wildfires.”

This claim would quickly fall apart.

Over the course of the oral arguments, it was established that water from Maui Hikina, stored in Central Maui, would never have been used to fight the devastating wildfires miles away in Lahaina. Moreover, millions of gallons of water from Maui Hikina were available in Central Maui reservoirs for firefighting, and Crabtree’s order allowed at least two million additional gallons of water to flow into them every day.

Sierra Club of Hawaiʻi attorney David Kimo Frankel also established that equipment and personnel limitations meant that Maui County could only physically use a few hundred thousand gallons of water at most to fight a fire – not millions of gallons, and not millions of gallons per day.

Then, the smoking gun surfaced: Maui County Corporation Counsel Mariana Löwy-Gerstmar confirmed that there, in fact, had been sufficient water to combat the Upcountry fires under Crabtree’s order, and that the Maui Fire Department had not made any requests for additional water.

Moreover, over the course of five days, the Maui Fire Department had used only 37,000 gallons of reservoir water for firefighting – orders of magnitude far less than the millions of gallons of Maui Hikina water that had been available every day for firefighting.

The oral arguments made it clear that the state attorney general had submitted multiple false statements to the court. Any suggestion that this was due to some kind of oversight quickly evaporated when the attorney general’s representative repeatedly declined to “walk back” the state’s now disproven claims.

The only discernible purpose for the knowing submission of these falsehoods was to tie the hands of an environmental court judge and allow a corporate water diverter to take an additional 10 million gallons of water per day from Maui Hikina.

Unsurprisingly, the Hawaiʻi Supreme Court rejected the attorney general’s petition.

A Pattern of Collusion?

The apparent collusion between developer and corporate interests and executive branch government officials had predated the Maui fires.

In July, e-mails revealed how Maui land developer Everett Dowling convinced Department of Hawaiian Home Lands Director Kali Watson to withdraw the department’s nomination of water law expert Jonathan Likeke Scheuer to the newly created East Maui Community Water Authority.

Dowling wrote that Scheuer was “generally disliked by the development community, large landowners such as ML&P (Maui Land & Pineapple), A&B, the construction trade unions and the ranches.”

Beneficiary outcry ensued, ultimately leading to Scheuer being renominated and confirmed to the authority.

Later that month, Gov. Josh Green vetoed two bills that would have held deep-pocket water hoarders accountable, especially during future water shortages.

Then, the governor issued an “emergency proclamation on housing” suspending environmental, cultural protection, as well as government transparency and other laws long targeted by corporate and developer lobbyists – with no affordability or meaningful residency requirements that could have reduced developer profit margins for housing built under the proclamation.

For many, the water issues in Maui Komohana and Maui Hikina not only reflected a continued pattern of government officials enabling corporate interests, but also signaled these leaders’ willingness to go so far as to exploit the heartbreak and trauma of Lahaina’s destruction, to do so.

Water Protectors Rise

Kānaka ʻŌiwi – including survivors of the Lahaina tragedy – and water protectors across the islands have now pushed back against the apparent collusion between government and corporate interests.

Dozens rallied the day after Manuel’s “redeployment,” expressing their gratitude for his work with hula and lei. The next day, a group of prominent families of Lahaina, Nā ʻOhana o Lele, came together to demand that Green give impacted families time to process and grieve, and center the Lahaina community in any and all conversations about rebuilding and redevelopment.

Rallies continued at the state capitol and testifiers deluged the water commission and Maui County Council.

This grassroots uprising has already seen some successes: Green eventually restored the water protections he had suspended for Maui Komohana, and drastically amended his emergency proclamation on housing to remove the suspensions of environmental, cultural, and good governance laws.

Whether the governor and his administration will fully recognize and address the dangers of blind deference to corporate powers-that-be, however, remains to be seen.