Lahaina fires prompt questions about state water policy
by Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, September 29, 2023
Are Hawaii’s water policies sufficient for fighting fires? That was the hard question Joe Kent posed last week while discussing Maui’s complicated water situation with NewsRadio 830 KHVH host Rick Hamada.
Kent, the Grassroot Institute’s executive vice president, said water is an especially important topic when it comes to Lahaina, where water reportedly spewed from melting pipes during the tragic Aug. 8 wildfires, and firefighters couldn’t battle the flames because the hydrants went dry.
“The water was hard to get because the system was broken,” Kent said.
On the other hand, Kent said, there was a water company just outside Lahaina that had asked the state for more water to fight the fires, but the state’s Commission on Water Resource Management wouldn’t release the water until well after it was needed.
Kent said that and related issues are “distracting questions,” but the most important question is whether regulations allow water to be accessed easily for fighting fires.
“You shouldn’t have to ask the state permission to do that,” he said.
Kent said another question is whether rebuilding efforts should be allowed to proceed in fire-prone areas.
“Those are all grasslands that are dry,” he said, “but at the same time, if you build there, … then there wouldn’t be grasslands there.”
To which Hamada replied, “Cut the damn grass.”
Covering a lot of ground in the 20-minute conversation, Hamada also asked Kent to share his thoughts on:
> The watering down of Gov. Josh Green’s emergency proclamation on housing.
>> The permitting backlogs on all islands.
>> Whether the state Department of Hawaiian Home Lands has the ability to spend its $600 million appropriation to build housing throughout the state.
>> The news that the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation is apparently considering muzzling its board members and replacing its CEO.
9-21-23 Joe Kent on Rick Hamada
Rick Hamada: And glad you’re with us here. It is Joe Kent [executive vice president with the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii] on board with us today. And Joe, I want to wish you a very good morning.
Joe Kent: Good morning to you, Rick.
Hamada: A lot on the agenda today. There is a press availability at 10 a.m. today with Gov. Josh Green and a litany of different folks. What do you anticipate will be top of mind today?
Kent: Oh, well, I haven’t seen that press release, but I have seen, of course, that the governor’s emergency proclamation on housing is starting to slowly fall apart, and I’m wondering if it’s about that at all.
Hamada: How is it falling apart?
Kent: Well, the governor had an emergency proclamation that would create this Build Beyond Barriers Working Group of course that — it was kind of an experiment: Let’s see what happens if we reduce all of Hawaii’s housing regulations into a petri dish and see what happens.
And of course, what happens is the public focuses its laser anger at that committee and sort of blows it up.
And so we saw that the governor’s chief housing officer [Nani Medeiros] resigned after comments from BJ Penn and others that were kind of angry and directed at her. We also saw the governor retool his emergency proclamation to sort of gut the most controversial aspects of that: the environmental review and the state Land Use Commission and other aspects.
And so, this attempt to try to, kind of, I don’t know if it’s a reduction in the size of government or just a restructuring, but it doesn’t seem to be working as they wanted it to be.
Hamada: [sighs] There’s a lot in the proclamation. First of all, issued previous to the wildfires. The continuation of it. There’s a conspiratorial side, which I don’t report on, but I hear all the time.
Kent: That’s right.
Hamada: That it was a concerted effort for the seizure of the peoples’ land by government. Do you subscribe to that notion?
Hamada: I think that the government is mostly well-meaning human beings who are not really intelligent or smart enough to devise all of these nefarious means overtly. I think you can still get to a sort of dysfunctional committee, even if you don’t assume the conspiracies, so.
But the housing proclamation sort of highlights this problem, which is the public — the right for public input versus private property. And this is, you know, apparent throughout our housing regulations, even without the proclamation.
When the public has so much right to say what you can and can’t do over your property, do you really have a property right? And that’s kind of what we’re seeing with the emergency proclamation is they’re going project by project, but the public now is going to be able to weigh in and probably kill some of these projects that they want to move forward.
Hamada: So how is government with this proclamation violating property rights of the individual?
Kent: They’re looking at each project, and of course the government itself violates —
Hamada: So each project is each house?
Hamada: Residence, commercial property …
Kent: That’s right. That’s right. Yes. And so they’re looking at any project that wants to be built. And of course the government already — you know, you have to beg for permission to build what is on your land. And so, just by that, they’re kind of, you know, making it harder to build.
So this was supposed to make it easier, and I don’t know if it’s easier because in a year, the proclamation might vanish anyways. And the projects that are being brought forth to this committee are mostly government projects too, which are less controversial than the private sector projects, so.
So, actually, the real fight for housing, I think, is outside of this committee. It’s at the Legislature, it’s at the councils, and it’s with the question of “How can we make it easier to build?”
Hamada: So is the DPP [Department of Planning and Permitting] equivalent to Maui County as troubling as it is here on Oahu?
Kent: On Maui County and on the Big Island, DPP has a huge backlog, of course. In Honolulu, it’s a little brighter because of the passage of Bill 56 recently, which allows for home repairs under $10,000 to slip through quicker. You don’t need a permit for that type of thing, and for fences and for solar repairs, and.
You know, I was on the DPP website, and I was looking at all of the different thousands of permits that are standing in line, and you see an $80 million permit for a hotel sitting right next to a $10,000 permit for a rock wall in someone’s backyard. You know, they’re all in the same line.
And so, I think this will at least clear out hundreds of backlogged permits. But the other islands should follow suit too. But there’s even more that we can do. This is a small measure, so.
Hamada: It is. Once again, 8:46 in the morning.
We had at one point a multiple-million-dollar surplus they just speedily spent and appropriated. Almost $500 million going to DHHL [Department of Hawaiian Home Lands] and under now-returning director Kali Watson. Where’s the money?
Kent: Where’s the money? I’ve been trying to dig into that question since you’ve been asking, and it’s actually around $600 million that was given in 2022 and with the stipulation that if they don’t spend it by 2025, they lose it.
So if you don’t use it, you lose it.
Now the question is: Can you actually spend $600 million in just a few years to build housing? And it looks like so far they’ve spent about $200 million of it, or at least they’re spending $200 million of it on certain housing projects, on all the different islands. They just came out with this paper that details all of that.
Wailuku, you know, Hilo, Maui, Hanapepe residents on Kauai broke ground recently — that’s 82 units. So in total, the money’s going towards about 800 units out of 5,000.
Now that’s promising, but of course some of this money looks to be encumbered, which you’re not really sure if it’s been spent or if it’s like wished to be spent. And along the way there’s a lot of snags in the government regulations that can trip things up.
So, again, if they don’t spend the money, they lose it. And that would be a sad commentary because, you know, again, here’s a brick wall of housing regulations and here’s a lot of money to go through it. You know, is it going to be easy to do that or what? So we’ll see and we’ll keep tracking it for you.
Hamada: It’s 8:48 in the morning. Covering ground with Joe Kent of Grassroot Institute.
And on the agenda today is also HART [Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation]. I read through some of the recent board agenda and also subsequent reports. This whole business that the HART board is undertaking in regard to attribution of communication, statements, public and etc.
Sheesh, let’s get a shovel. Walk us through.
Kent: So HART has had a thorn in its side, and that thorn is named Natalie Iwasa, who was an appointed board member by the Legislature. And they see her on media and sometimes in interviews — sometimes we at Grassroot Institute interview her — and she always says, “You know, I’m speaking in my capacity as an individual even though I’m a HART board member.” And she sort of puts asterisks in front of all of her statements.
But now they want all board members and her to sign a statement that she has permission to speak or make statements in writing from her [appointing] authority.
And presumably she would have to get permission each time she spoke or about what she spoke. And that kind of puts a muzzle on her, and others too. And so, it also would require her to sign a confidentiality agreement to participate in the board’s executive sessions. And I think she’s not signed that, just on, based on principle.
But, you know, whenever you see an idea that is not allowed to be challenged, it makes you wonder what’s wrong with that idea. And that’s kind of what we’re seeing here.
I mean, the whole point of having a board is to have oversight over HART. They’re not supposed to defend and protect HART to all, to the ends of the earth. They’re supposed to be our kind of watchdog agency about how the rail is going. And so we need watchdogs on there to have the freedom to speak out.
Hamada: The HART board is interesting, and I’m going to use that word because I don’t have to hit the red button on the delay.
But also previous on the agenda that was submitted — preview — and the actual agenda of this last meeting was an entry called “executive search.” In other words, HART board consideration of finding a replacement for Lori Kahikina.
Kent: I see.
Hamada: I want to get your take on that if — and then, I understand it has been deferred this past meeting, but it’s not off the radar. And what’s your take?
Kent: Well, yeah. I mean, this is just another in a long chain of executive leaders from that agency. It’s almost like you imagine a conveyor belt of who’s the next person.
But of course, the HART board previously had not given Lori a raise. And of course, a lot of people like Lori. Lori is kind of…I view her really positively, in a way, as a government cost-cutter. She has cut back the rail as much as she could within the bounds of legality.
And I’m just wondering if there is some sort of visionary difference over the future direction of the rail between her and whatever the board wants to do. So, these are just speculations, but it’s more of the same, it sounds like.
Hamada: Well, it’s also the board itself, as you indicated, attempting to muzzle, to silence. If there’s ever any disagreement, perhaps there are board members that aspire to her position, which would be very self-serving.
Kent: Oh yeah, mhm.
Hamada: But I would submit in the time that I have witnessed firsthand, but also is previous to this administration of HART, nobody talked to each other. Nobody communicated. Nobody was on the same page. There was no support from the feds, they were looking at us like, “You got to be kidding me.”
And then it culminated with [Andrew] Robbins and Kirk Caldwell, [former Honolulu] mayor, completely throwing years of work away on PPP and then bringing the whole project to nothing. Vendors, contractors — everybody — disconnected.
Within two and a half years under Lori’s watch, I will submit: That has been totally reversed.
Have our opinions of the project as we do, but fundamentally, as far as administering — to turn something around after 15-plus years of languishing to where there has been forward movement and actually some unanimity in mission for the first time ever, for the HART board to go, “Well, yeah, we don’t think that’s very good.”
Kent: That’s right. And look at the — they say that there’s going to be a surplus of half a billion dollars by the time the rail’s finished. That, I think, speaks to Lori’s cost-cutting measures, actually.
And of course, now the thought is: What should we do with that $500 million? And should we finish it all the way to the mall? Or go beyond the mall? And so on.
But it looks like the visionary questions around that may be leading to the potential replacement of Lori. But we’ll see.
Hamada: We’ll see what happens. We have a few minutes. I want to go back to Maui for a moment. I’m going to say one word, and I’d like for you to give us the insight of the importance of one word: water.
Kent: Water. It’s a — there could have been a book written called “Water and Power in Hawaii.”
But water is a big issue, especially when it comes to Lahaina, where the New York Times reported that water was spewing out of the melting pipes during the tragic August 8th wildfire, and that firefighters were unable to fight the flames with water from the hydrants.
And so everyone asked, “Well, where was the water?” Well, apparently the water was, you know, just technically hard to get because of, the system was broken.
But there was this other issue of just outside Lahaina, another company, West Maui Water Co., made a request to the state for usage of more water with which to fight the fires.
They had a reservoir that they could fill that’s typically used for helicopters or for lawn — you know, sprinklers and things like that — suppression, but is not used for hydrants. In any case, that request was delayed till after the wildfire overtook the town. And the state’s Commission on Water Resource Management finally released the water, you know, well after it was needed.
And so, so that begs the question about: Are our water policies sufficient to fight fires?
In the meantime, Kaleo Manuel, the former water deputy, was removed from his state position at the Commission on Water at the state. And there was a lawsuit filed that that was done illegally.
And there’s questions about West Maui Waters’ intentions and all this. So there’s all these sort of distracting questions, I think.
But the important question is: Does our regulations allow for water to be used easily for fighting fires? You shouldn’t have to ask the state permission to do that.
Hamada: Amen. And talk about permission again. You refer to control over property rights, etc. And when there’s a designation of a fire-prone zone, I guess, then you have to take a look at what leads you to that designation, and who does it affect and how?
What’s the latest here?
Kent: Yeah, this is an interesting question that’s budding on Maui — which is that, yes, we want to rebuild, but should we rebuild in fire-prone areas? Do we want another disaster like this happening again?
At the same time, you know, the whole question about rebuilding Lahaina — Lahaina was in a fire-prone area, and so the lands around Lahaina are really the main question, which is, you know, those are all grasslands that are dry, and.
But at the same time, if you build there, the argument goes that then there wouldn’t be grasslands there. There would be houses with infrastructure and water and fire suppression and so on.
And so, I’ve actually emailed researchers nationally to ask, you know, “Is it safer to build urban, or just leave it as wildfire?” And they say, “Well, the research shows it’s kind of a wash.” They’re not really sure actually. So that’s an important question for Maui to grapple with.
Hamada: Cut the damn grass.
Kent: There you go.
Hamada: Just cut the grass.
Kent: Cut it; that’s right.
Hamada: Get a couple of high school students with a push lawnmower
Kent: Yeah, exactly.
Hamada: Pay them 50 cents, which I got when I was a kid, and, you know, be done.
Kent: Well, there’s other ways to do it, too. Yeah, absolutely.
Hamada: We’re unfortunately right at the top of the hour, Joe. Tell us how we can connect with you and with Grassroot Institute.
Kent: Grassrootinstitute.org is our newsletter, where 40,000 people read what we have to say every week.
Hamada: There you go. Easy to do, and do not miss out. Joe Kent, thank you so very much for today, and we’ll see you next time.
Kent: Thanks so much, Rick.