Aug. 25—The state Supreme Court on Thursday quickly denied a Board of Land and Natural Resources petition that claimed a judge's ruling prevented enough water from being available to fight the Upcountry wildfires.
In its brief order denying the petition, the court said state attorneys failed to establish "a clear and indisputable right to the relief requested."
Justices on Wednesday heard oral arguments on the petition, which asserted that the actions of Environmental Court Judge Jeffrey Crabtree ended up hampering efforts to fight the fires that destroyed some 19 homes and blackened thousands of acres.
In its petition, the board aimed to move forward a dispute over the use of
East Maui water and overturn the June decision by Crabtree authorizing East Maui stream diversions to 31.5 million gallons of water per day, a reduction from the 40 million gallons per day authorized by BLNR.
The court dispute is the latest in a decades-long battle over the billions of gallons of water diverted from East Maui's streams for
Central Maui agriculture and development.
During oral arguments Wednesday a Maui County attorney told the justices there was indeed enough water to battle the wind-whipped flames, and an attorney with the Sierra Club of Hawai'i pointed out that it takes tens of thousands of gallons of water to fight fires rather than the millions that were available.
On Thursday, David Kimo Frankel, attorney for the Sierra Club, said the Supreme Court's quick rejection of the state's petition demonstrates that the state's position was "completely without merit."
"The state attempted to exploit a horrific tragedy to deprive our streams of water," Frankel said. "All the evidence proves that millions of gallons of water were available to fight fires."
Frankel said very little of the water was used to battle the flames in the opening hours of the disaster, because it was too windy for helicopters to fly safely and there weren't even enough firefighters and equipment to use millions of gallons
The Department of the Attorney General responded to the court's order with this statement: "While we are disappointed in the result, we respect the Hawai'i Supreme Court's decision."
During a wildfire news conference last week, Gov. Josh Green expressed frustration about the ongoing conflicts over water and the fact people are resisting the release of water to fight fires.
But conservationists say they haven't opposed water for firefighting, and Frankel pointed out that Crabtree approved 7.5 million gallons per day for Upcountry water needs, including for drinking water, Kula Ag Park and
On social media the Sierra Club posted this statement: "We are grateful for the justice's hard questioning and quick ruling. We are however, still disgusted at the state and A&B's attempt to take more from East Maui streams for corporate
profit and power. Their claims were baseless and shameful."
The fires that started in Olinda and Kula on Aug. 8 continue to burn, and remain 85% contained with only hot spots left, officials said Thursday.
Maui Fire Department officials say that completely extinguishing the Upcountry fires might take an extended time because of the vast burn area and the nature of the rough terrain. Even though containment percentages have not changed over recent days, officials say there are no active threats among the ongoing fires.
Meanwhile, dozens of Native Hawaiians and conservationists held a news conference at the state Capitol on Thursday afternoon calling for freshwater resources to be protected.
They demanded the reinstatement of both the state Water Code, which was suspended by emergency proclamation by Green after the wildfires, and Kaleo Manuel as deputy director of the Commission on Water
Resource Management. Last week Manuel was removed from his position after a letter was sent to the BLNR describing his actions during the wildfire that devastated Lahaina.
Speakers in Honolulu called Manuel a scapegoat and a fall guy for the fires, unfairly accused of delaying the filling of reservoirs that could not have been used that day by crews fighting the fires.
The truth is that the reservoirs are not connected to the Lahaina hydrants, and helicopters could not have flown that day because of the high winds, said Kamana Beamer,
former member of the
Commission on Water Resources Management.
"We now know unequivocally that the water that was being requested by Maui Water Land Co. couldn't have been used to fight the fires that day in Lahaina," Beamer said.
People were urged to sign a petition asking Green and BLNR Chair Dawn Chang to, among other things, return Manuel to his old job and
reinstate the Water Code.