Agency Headed By ‘Indigenous Knowledge’ Advocate Delayed Water Supplies That Would Have Fought Hawaii Fires

Agency Headed By ‘Indigenous Knowledge’ Advocate Delayed Water Supplies That Would Have Fought Hawaii Fires
Kaleo Manuel

By Nick Pope

  • West Maui Land Co., a major water company in Maui, alleged in a letter that five hours passed between its request to divert water and its receipt of approval to do so from Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources (DNLR).
  • The company was instructed to contact a downstream farmer to ask about the impacts of a diversion on his operation, and by the time it had received approval it could no longer access the siphon that would have made the diversion work and enabled replenishment of water supply for firefighters.
  • M. Kaleo Manuel, DLNR’s deputy director of water resource management, “has focused on bringing planning and indigenous knowledge to the fields of water advocacy and management in Hawaii” and made comments suggesting that water use requires “true conversations about equity,” according to footage posted to Twitter and DLNR’s website. 

The agency headed by M. Kaleo Manuel, the deputy director of the water resource management commission for Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR), delayed a requested diversion of water to fight the Maui wildfires on the grounds that such a diversion may have affected a local farmer, according to a letter sent by a Hawaiian water management company.

The West Maui Land Co. wrote an Aug. 10 letter to Manuel, the day after the fires had done most of their damage, explaining that there was a five-hour gap between the company’s 1 p.m. request to divert water from streams in order to assist the Maui Fire Department (MFD) in its effort to battle the blazes and the agency’s 6 p.m. approval of the request. Manuel’s agency delayed primarily because it was concerned about the impacts of a water diversion on a downstream local farmer, according to the letter.

By the time the company received approval to divert water, the company was “unable to reach the siphon release to make the adjustments that would have allowed more water to fill our reservoirs” and be accessible to MFD, according to the letter. Thus, the company was unable to provide as much water to MFD as it may have been able to otherwise, and fire hydrants reportedly ran dry in Lahania as the flames engulfed the town, according to Hawaii News Now. (RELATED: Beach-Lounging Biden Has ‘No Comment’ As Death Toll In Maui Nears 100)

In response to the request, the agency asked West Maui Land Co. if MFD had requested access to the company’s reservoirs and to check in with a downstream user of the water in question to ensure that his water taro patch would not be adversely affected by a temporary decrease in his available water, according to the letter. The company had already made an effort to contact the downstream user, but the letter explained that communications were spotty and that time was of the essence.

The wildfires have resulted in at least 110 deaths, a figure that may rise as search efforts continue, according to CNN.

“In an emergency situation, or when an emergency is anticipated, a temporary reduction (not elimination) of water to one individual’s farm should not be prioritized over and delay efforts to save an entire community,” the letter says.

Manuel “has focused on bringing planning and indigenous knowledge to the fields of water advocacy and management in Hawaii” in his capacity as deputy director of water resource management, according to his biography page on the (DNLR) website.

In footage of an old Zoom meeting posted to Twitter, Manuel describes his view that Hawaiians revere water, and that its management in modern society necessitates “true conversations about equity.”

The company’s letter posits that it is impossible to know if the situation would have turned out differently had the diversion’s approval been granted immediately upon receipt.

Manuel has been temporarily reassigned to a different position within NLDR as investigations into what may have gone wrong proceed, according to the Honolulu Civil Beat.

He was also named as a 2019 Asia Pacific leader by the Obama Foundation, according to the Obama Foundation’s website.

The alleged hesitancy to divert the water joins the growing list of reported crucial failures of public and private institutions to respond to the crisis and mitigate its risks in advance. In addition to the alleged failure to immediately divert water, the Maui County crisis response official who did not sound emergency sirens had zero prior career experience in emergency management, the utility company whose downed power line reportedly sparked the fire reportedly focused on green energy while generally neglecting wildfire preparedness, the state had for years exercised questionable land management policies and the 911 system reportedly went offline.

The DLNR did not respond immediately to a request for comment.

West Maui Land Co Letter by Nick Pope on Scribd


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