Testimony suggests public wary of water proposals

WAILUKU – Dozens of farmers, ranchers, gardeners and other residents voiced their disapproval during a County Council committee hearing on a bill that would give the water director, with the consent of the mayor, the power to impose higher rates during water shortages and to penalize those who violate drought directives.

“I saw nothing that protects farmers and people who produce food here on Maui,” said Simon Russell, Hawaii Farmers Union United legislative committee chairman, in public testimony Monday night in the Kalana O Maui building’s Council Chambers. “I would like the bill to add exceptions for all farmers against penalizations.”

Council members on the Water Resources Committee heard many other testifiers echo Russell’s fear of the proposed penalty section, which would allow the water department to remove someone’s water meter for violating drought regulations.

Lloyd Fischel, operator of Fragrant Orchids of Maui, said that his 2-acre farm is primarily supplied by a low-maintenance water catchment system, but sometimes he requires county water. Holding a pink piece of paper in front of him, he said he has received many notices from the water department warning him about his water usage.

“This notice received in February establishes that the water department does not see or care about the people, only numbers,” he said. “The water director and corporation counsel want to convict people who use more water, while there is little being done to increase water conservation or education in this bill.”

Before testimony began, Water Supply Director Dave Taylor tried to assuage the concerns of the 25 or so people who attended the evening meeting with a short presentation explaining, “what the bill is and what it isn’t,” he said.

Currently, the bill details two stages of water shortage declarations – which trigger higher rates to be determined during the council’s budget cycle – that can be called by the water director with the consent of the mayor.

“All this bill does is allow there to be a stage one and stage two,” he said. “It is a very specific, confined, council-approved bill that only lets the water director chose when to use the bill.”

Under current ordinances, the water department can impose 10 percent cutbacks when a water shortage occurs.

“Right now, today, when we have a water shortage and impose 10 percent cutbacks, everybody is penalized, regardless of your water use,” he said.

Bill Greenleaf, a small farmer and treasurer of the Hawaii Farmers Union United, thanked Taylor for the presentation but still expressed his concern about the vagueness of the bill and the amount of power given to the water director.

“I think it would be really helpful if the bill would spell out specific measures for future directors,” he said.

Dave DeLeon, speaking on behalf of the Realtors Association of Maui, was one of the few supporters at the meeting for the proposed bill.

DeLeon characterized the measures to be “obvious” and “appropriate” and continued to say that the belief of some of the emergency shortage rates never being lifted is a “stretch of the imagination.”

Speaking on behalf of the Maui County Farm Bureau, Executive Director Warren Watanabe was still concerned about the termination of the emergency rate hike.

“Every day during a declaration is critical for agricultural operations,” he said. “The current language does not provide a mechanism to end the declaration period.”

Watanabe said that the bureau suggests two specific amendments to the proposed bill. First, the bureau asks that the water director report his or her findings to the County Council every month after the declaration of a water shortage.

“By requiring a monthly re-evaluation and recognizing that availability of water can fluctuate, it seems reasonable to ensure that the declaratory period is not open-ended and ceases at the appropriate time,” he testified.

Second, the bureau asks that the bill provide more specific standards and specifications for schedules, restrictions and rates during water shortages.

At the end of public testimony, committee Chairman Michael Victorino addressed a number of emails sent to him, inquiring about water use on golf courses and county parks. He said all golf courses on Maui use reclaimed water, but the majority of water used in public parks comes from the county system.

Overall, Victorino found the meeting to be “very good” with “a lot of good information from various entities.”

“When a water shortage comes up, we want to penalize those who are abusive and protect those who are conserving water,” he said. “I think what Mr. Taylor has brought up are great concepts but still need to be worked on.”

Taylor said the water department is not afraid of discussion and was very excited with the community’s involvement.

“This is a very difficult issue,” he said. “We’re happy that the public is concerned and talking about the issue.”

* Chris Sugidono can be reached at csugidono@mauinews.com.