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Hawaii delayed diverting water that could have helped Maui wildfires, letters obtained by CNN allege

<i>Matthew Thayer/The Maui News/AP</i><br/>State officials are investigating the emergency response to the fire that ravaged Lahaina.
Matthew Thayer/The Maui News/AP
State officials are investigating the emergency response to the fire that ravaged Lahaina.

By Isabelle Chapman and Curt Devine, CNN

(CNN) — A state agency delayed a water management company’s request to make more water available to fight the devastating wildfires on Maui earlier this month, according to letters obtained by CNN.

Glenn Tremble of the West Maui Land Company, which manages water supply companies, complained in a letter to the deputy director of the Hawaii Commission on Water Resource Management that the agency failed to quickly approve his company’s request to divert stream water to nearby reservoirs.

The agency told Tremble that his company first had to ask about impacts on downstream users, according to the letter.

It’s unclear whether a prompt approval of the request would have significantly bolstered firefighting efforts in Lahaina. In the wake of the blaze, state officials announced they are investigating the emergency response to the disaster that has claimed more than 100 lives.

Hours went by, Tremble wrote in his August 10 letter, before his request was approved. Tremble told CNN by that time, his company’s water system manager left the area to evacuate his family and other staff couldn’t be reached.

Tremble said he made his initial request on August 8, when the fire ripped through Lahaina.

He and his colleagues watched the fire spread “without the ability to help,” Tremble wrote.

“We anxiously awaited the morning knowing that we could have made more water available to (the fire department) if our request had been immediately approved,” he wrote. “We cannot know whether filling our reservoirs at 1:00 p.m. (as opposed to not at all) would have changed the headlines when dawn broke… We know that we need to act faster during an emergency.”

The correspondence was previously reported by the Honolulu Star-Advertiser and the Honolulu Civil Beat. In an email to CNN, Tremble said his company asked permission to fill their reservoirs before the fire swept into Lahaina, though he said his company’s systems are not connected to the county’s systems that supply fire hydrants.

Maui’s fire department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The chairperson for the Commission on Water Resource Management responded to Tremble’s letter the same day, stating that her agency would largely grant his requests related to filling reservoirs and loosening regulations for fire emergencies in the area. In a follow-up letter, Tremble thanked the chairperson for the prompt response.

Asked about reports that firefighters didn’t have enough water to tackle the fire, Gov. Josh Green told reporters in a news conference Monday: “One thing that people need to understand, especially from far away, is there’s been a great deal of water conflict on Maui for many years.”

This isn’t the first time West Maui Land Company and the state’s water commission have been at odds.

The commission had proposed slapping one of the company’s subsidiaries, Olowalu Water, with a $470,000 fine in 2022 after it drew more water than was allowed from a West Maui stream. The two parties eventually settled on a compromise, according to local media: Olowalu Water would make improvements to the community’s water system instead of forking over any cash.

This week, the Department of Land and Natural Resources, which oversees the Commission on Water Resource Management, reassigned M. Kaleo Manuel – the recipient of the letter Tremble initially sent – to a different division.

“The purpose of this deployment is to permit CWRM and the Department to focus on the necessary work to assist the people of Maui recover from the devastation of wildfires,” reads a statement the agency shared with CNN.

“This deployment does not suggest that First Deputy Manuel did anything wrong.”

The agency declined to comment on whether quicker approval of West Maui Land Company’s request would have helped firefighters.

Manuel couldn’t be reached for comment.

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