Water fees set to help curb usage in shortage

An average household on Maui could see its water fees based on usage rise by at least $4.37 a month under a worst-case scenario in a declared emergency water shortage, according to a rate structure proposed by Mayor Alan Arakawa’s administration.

The higher fees are intended to curb consumption when emergency water benchmarks are achieved and an emergency water shortage is declared. Both the emergency rate schedule and the power to declare a water shortage emergency are currently before the County Council.

Dave Taylor, director of the Department of Water Supply, explained that the emergency rates are based on proposed regular water rate increases, announced by the mayor in his State of the County address in February. The emergency rates ranged from 25 to 100 percent higher than the mayor’s proposed higher regular water rates, based on the amount of water used and severity of the shortage.

The Maui News arrived at the $4.37 a month increase using current rates and 16,000 gallons a month, which Taylor said is the amount an average Maui County household uses. For the first 5,000 gallons used, the rate rises from $1.75 to $1.80 per thousand gallons under the worst-case scenario. From 5,001 to 15,000 gallons, the rate goes from the current $3.20 to $3.35 per thousand gallons. The cost of the final 1,000 gallons rises from the current $4.80 to $7.42 per thousand gallons.

The increase is $4.37 a month under the worst-case emergency scenario. This is for a 5/8-inch meter and does not include the water meter service charge.

Taylor took issue with this methodology, saying the comparison of the current water use rates to the administration’s proposed water shortage rates was not quite comparing apples to apples and noted that the water department determined its emergency water shortage rates based on its proposed regular rates, which have not been approved by the council.

He did point out that the proposed higher water rates during water shortages are not intended to penalize those who already conserve water. The higher rates during water shortages are to get larger consumers of water to conserve more during dire situations, he said.

Some highlights of the proposed water shortage rates under the worst-case scenario:

* Single-family users will be charged $11.30 per thousand gallons, up from the current $5.25, for water usage above 35,000 gallons.

* Farmers who use more than 15,000 gallons a month will see rates climb from $1.10 to $1.38 per thousand gallons. Agricultural users had only 10 to 20 percent increases based on the proposed regular rate increases, Taylor said.

* Hotel and business users who use more than 15,000 gallons per month will see their rates rise from $4.80 to $7.42 per thousand gallons.

Asked if he thought that the proposed water shortage rates will get people to conserve water during emergencies, Taylor said: “We recognize there is no way to calculate exactly what will work or what won’t.”

He added that during the declared shortages, the county is planning to conduct “media blitzes” to inform people of the higher rates and why they are occurring.

The proposed emergency rates are part of Arakawa’s 2013-2014 budget, which is currently under review by the Maui County Council.

The council’s Budget and Finance Committee is scheduled to begin its deliberations on rates and fees, which includes the water shortage rates, beginning at 10 a.m. Thursday in Council Chambers at the Kalana O Maui building.

While the committee will decide the water shortage rates, the proposed bill that will give the water director, with the approval of the mayor, the power to declare water shortages based on established benchmarks is currently in the council Water Resources Committee. The emergency rates would be triggered by the water shortage declaration.

The chairman of the Water Resources Committee, Mike Victorino, said last week that he is seeking to schedule a meeting on the bill in the next 30 days, so that legislation can be in place when the county’s new rates and fees are set to go into effect July 1.

The bill, proposed by the county’s administration, seeks to give the water director the authority to declare water shortages not only for drought conditions but for mechanical failure, human error and natural disasters.

Victorino said he doesn’t like some of the rates proposed but didn’t elaborate. He said that more work is needed on the bill so that the public can “understand what it means.”

Victorino questioned the fairness of billing people for water shortages that occur due to mechanical failure or human error.

“How do we start charging people?” he questioned.

Victorino also noted that he wanted to protect farmers and ranchers from being hit hard. He suggested maybe not imposing the water shortage rate increases on that group until 60 or 90 days into a declared shortage. That would allow the farmers to “wind down” or harvest their crops.

Taylor noted that the administration understands that residents can let their lawns dry up by not watering them but that water is essential for agricultural users. That is why the water shortage rate hikes are not as high for agricultural users, he said.

Victorino added that he wants to make sure that the mayor’s administration would quickly meet with the council after an emergency water shortage declaration. He wants the administration to show the council and the public what kinds of remediation measures were underway and to give updates as to how long the emergency situation will last.

“We are going to work hard to (get) what I call a fair and reasonable water shortage bill, so no one is adversely affected,” he said.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.