Rob Parsons

The Elephant in the Room

Maui's dwindling water supply demands more than denial

by Rob Parsons

October 25, 2007

Living in Haiku, where frequent trade wind showers paint the countryside in multi-hued shades of green, it's hard to comprehend the critical nature of our island water supplies.

The warning signs have been there for years, most notably the 2003 "designation" of the "~Iao aquifer as a water management area by the state Commission on Water Resource Management. Now, four years later, developer proposals to drill private wells island-wide and announcements by the Tavares administration about a "new source" indicate how out of touch they are about the nature of our water issues.

The local issue mirrors a worldwide shortage of fresh water. In an Oct. 21 New York Times Magazine feature article titled "The Future is Drying Up," Las Vegas area water authority head Pat Mulroy summarizes the dilemma: "We have an exploding human population, and we have a shrinking clean-water supply. Those are on colliding paths."

On Maui, public discussion and debate over the past several months has focused upon two main issues: closure of transient vacation rentals and implementation of the Hawai"~i Superferry. Both issues reflect ill-advised choices by respective administrations, with no effort to appease alternative community views. But the lack of significant actions to balance rampant development with dwindling fresh water resources reflect decades of denial about the course we've set for our island's future.

Throw in a bit of global warming-which means less rainfall for the overall weather patterns-and you've got a crisis. Unless we quickly change the ways we approve developments, issue water meters and manage our public water resources, the aquifer supplying virtually all of South and Central Maui may become too salty to drink.

At least one elected official is doing everything she can to address our water woes. Council Water Resource Committee Chair Michelle Anderson has sought a variety of hard data from the county Department of Water Supply (DWS), the United States Geological Survey (USGS) and from developers proposing to provide their own systems.

Her committee recently received a capacity analysis from DWS, which she had requested back in January.

The department's analysis shows an estimated demand for another 1.8 million gallons per day for which meters have been issued, but not implemented. With the "~Iao aquifer and Waihe"~e aquifers already being pumped beyond their sustainable yields, it's natural to ask where we'll find the additional supply.

Earlier this year, Anderson introduced draft legislation modeled after that recently adopted in California. Dubbed the "Show me the water" bill, it would require a developer to demonstrate a 20-year supply of adequate potable water before getting building approvals.

The draft bill found overwhelming support from community members and organizations advocating responsible planning, including Maui Tomorrow. But a second round of discussion brought out opposition from landowners, developers and building trades, who claimed the bill would impose a de facto moratorium on construction.

"It's a resource protection and management bill," Anderson said, "not a moratorium." Soon after, she addressed a general meeting of the Contractor's Association to explain the bill's intentions to address a fair allocation that allows protection for future generations.

"There were a lot of nodding heads in the room," Anderson said. She added that there are a couple developers who are still fighting the legislation.

What they may not be able to battle is the reality of the diminishing resource. The USGS recently presented results of a new study, titled Effects of Agricultural Land-Use Changes and Rainfall on Ground-Water Recharge in Central and West Maui, Hawai"~i, 1926-2004. The study's purpose was to respond to, "Concern surrounding declines in ground-water levels and an increase in the chloride concentration of water pumped from wells in the "~Iao aquifer system" and to investigate "the long-term sustainability of current and future ground-water withdrawals."

The study revealed that the drought period from 1998-2002 was the lowest rainfall period since 1926. What's more, the estimated groundwater recharge from 2000-2004 showed a 44 percent decrease in average recharge. While part of that is weather-related, the transition to more efficient drip irrigation in agricultural fields is also attributable.

In separate studies conducted during water transmission system repairs to clear landslide blockages from ditches in the West Maui Mountains, the USGS measured full stream flows of undiverted water. They concluded that as much as 40 percent of stream flow goes to recharge the deep lens of fresh water in the aquifer.

Yet one of the county administration's proposed fixes to the over-pumping plight is to use surface water. In fact, there's talk of a 9.0 million-gallon-a-day (mgd) water treatment facility being constructed on Alexander & Baldwin property in the Waiale Road area, in the rapidly growing area between Wailuku and Waikapu.

It's presumed that the joint venture between the county and A&B would result in a shared usage of the water, with A&B perhaps receiving half the output, or 4.5 mgd, though no agreement has yet been reached.

Yet the Hawai"~i State Constitution defines water as a shared resource held in a public trust, not a commodity to be privatized. Still, as the New York Times Magazine article stated, water rights tend to follow a bloodline back to whoever got them first.

Traditional allocations to historic sugar planters have been legally challenged, most notably in the decade-long Waiahole case on Oahu. And the very surface waters that the County and A&B want to treat-granted a century ago to Wailuku Sugar Company (now Wailuku Water Company)-will be reviewed in an upcoming contested case hearing in December.

Na Wai Eha, Maui Tomorrow and Earthjustice are asking the state Commission on Water Resource Management (CWRM) to institute instream flow standards for the four major waters of the West Maui Mountains-Waikapu, "~Iao, Waiehu and Waihe"~e. They contend there are traditional Native Hawaiian rights to the water for sustenance and riparian usage, such as taro cultivation, and that native stream biota depend upon more than a trickle of water flowing in the streams.

According to a Sept. 30 Maui News story, A&B officials assured county water director Jeff Eng that they have rights to the water, which would not be affected by the upcoming contested case hearings. (A&B Vice President Meredith Ching is a member of the CWRM.)

Mixing surface water with the pristine aquifer water may also prove problematic. The lessons of treatment, filtration and additives in the Upcountry system are still not fully understood, and there are still issues with leaching lead from older pipes, bacteria and the infamous "Upcountry Itch."

The Tavares Administration also wants to pump five new wells, ranging from Waihe"~e to Maui Lani to Waikapu-which it expects will bring 3.7 mgd of "new source." But the plan represents just more straws in the same glass, spreading out the pumping of the existing source in an attempt to slow the rising chloride levels and shrinking transition zone between fresh and salt waters.

Moreover, the above-cited Maui News article concludes by stating that once the five wells come online, the aging and dangerous Shaft 33, drilled in 1947, would go offline. Shaft 33 has been pumped at a rate of 5.0 mgd since 1992, so the new wells would actually represent a net loss of 1.3 mgd, rather than the "new source" spin they put on it.

In arid South Maui, valuable potable water is often used for irrigation, or for filling the big resorts' swimming pools and water features. To a limited extent, brackish wells and recycled wastewater are used for irrigation, but much more is pumped deep into the ground, eventually trickling nutrients to fuel near-shore algae growth.

Until recently, Wailea 670/Honua"~ula spokesman Charlie Jencks was telling the Council Planning Committee that the project developers have plenty of water to support their proposal for 1,400 new housing units, a private golf course and a private wastewater treatment facility. But on Oct. 18, Jencks said the two wells drilled on Haleakala Ranch land at the 575-foot level drew 700,000 gallons over a 16-hour pump test.

That's less than half the project's estimated need.

"They haven't proven anything," said Anderson, who has repeatedly asked for conclusive data on Wailea 670's water source and desalinization plans. "They need at least a week's worth of testing to measure drawdown and recharge."

A Department of Land and Natural Resources test well in a nearby location only provided 148,000 gallons per day, according to Anderson. But the chlorides were also above the drinking standard of 200 parts per million, and the well was abandoned.

Anderson also noted that an extended drought has left the Atlanta, Georgia area with a perilous water shortage. The levels of Lake Lanier-a 38,000-acre reservoir that supplies a metro area of more than three million people-is estimated to have a mere three-month supply remaining.

Of course, water conservation measures are highly advisable, rather than continually looking for more supply. Funding a "Water Marshal" could be a wise investment, much as California and other municipalities have sought monitoring and enforcement of sprinkler over-spraying, car washing and other wasteful practices.

But it's time for our elected and appointed officials to do a reality check on the future sustainability of rampant development. Should widespread efforts be made to shift agricultural water allocations to development, we need to plan wisely to make sure we don't diminish bona fide efforts at providing local food production.

Yes, it's time we all got in the habit of turning off the faucet while we brush our teeth. But it's also time South Maui landowners understood that building in a desert climate may not be the wisest allocation of our shared resources.