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Land and Water

Updated: Sep 16, 2020

Should the state allow industrial solar energy development on our best agricultural lands? I most passionately say No.

Several years ago, when I served on the House Committee on Agriculture, we voted to allow solar energy projects on agriculture lands rated C in soil quality. When I mentioned to the chair that I thought this might be a pretty good idea, he said he was comfortable with limited solar development on C lands, but he worried that in the coming years, they would come after the prime ag lands, grades A and B. That day has arrived.

HB593 would allow large scale industrial solar energy development on A grade land. Of the 1.8 million acres of land classified as agricultural in Hawaii, there remain only 55,800 acres of Grade A land, the highest quality and most valuable ag land. Food farmers, who already struggle to secure good land and long term leases, may soon have to compete against multinational energy companies for our last, best available farm land.

The Senate version of this measure failed to pass out of the Senate Committee on Agriculture. However, when the House version arrived, Senate leadership directed it to a different combination of committees. HB 593, which relates to agricultural land, was not referred to the agricultural committee. It seems there is a concerted push to get this bill passed for a particular Korean energy company and a certain land owner in Kunia.

The Hawaii State Constitution, Article XI, Section 3, says “The State shall conserve and protect agricultural lands, promote diversified agriculture, increase agricultural self-sufficiency and assure the availability of agriculturally suitable lands. The legislature shall provide standards and criteria to accomplish the foregoing.”

It is a crying shame that some of my colleagues are determined to destroy the standards and criteria that were established to conserve and protect agricultural lands.

Should the state pass special legislation so companies like Alexander and Baldwin (A&B) and Kauai Island Utility Cooperative (KIUC) can continue, without permits, to divert tens of millions of gallons a day of publicly owned water from streams? I opposed the first moratorium for three years and I now oppose another seven-year extension, proposed in HB 1326.

The water diversion permits for these companies expired decades ago, yet they have still not completed the required environmental studies and permit conditions. A&B lost a long, contentious legal battle against East Maui residents, Native Hawaiians and environmentalists in January 2016, then immediately went to the legislature for a law to foil the court decision. In so doing, they have drawn into the controversy other entities such as KIUC and smaller farmers and ranchers.

There will be no harm done if the three-year moratorium of 2016 is allowed to expire. A&B closed its sugar plantation and its successor, Mahi Pono, has not yet developed its farm plan. They have enough water for now and have time to complete the permit process. Upcountry Maui residents are assured of continued water supply. The other water permit holders have never been challenged and they can continue business as usual while they complete their permit applications.

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