Emergency water rates hike measure is deferred again

A bill that would give the county water director, with the consent of the mayor, the power to impose higher rates during water shortages was deferred yet again by members of the Maui County Council’s Water Resources Committee on Wednesday.

Council members unanimously voted to defer the bill, which was first introduced in January and has since been bounced between the committee and the full council to allow for more testimony from community groups, small and large farmers and water users.

“The public’s a little afraid of giving the ultimate power to the director and the mayor,” Committee Chairman Michael Victorino told The Maui News during a recess Wednesday. “This bill tries to reel in some of that power and put the council in some of those areas, like (requiring the Department of Water Supply to) submit a report to us within 45 days.”

The committee also added other provisions since the bill was last heard in Council Chambers in March. In addition to the mandatory report submitted to the council within 45 days, the bill requires the department to, in times of water shortage, issue a weekly notice and publication of the declaration in a newspaper of general circulation (probably The Maui News, according to Victorino).

The bill heard Wednesday also was amended to include a 60-day grace period after the declaration of a water shortage and before any rate increases would be applied to agricultural consumers, giving farmers time to plan ahead for the water shortage as well as to harvest their crops.

The Maui County Farm Bureau, a nonprofit organization that represents mostly large-scale farmers and ranchers, supported the measure as “a temporary solution” to dealing with water shortages, according to Executive Director Warren Watanabe. However, he encouraged council members to work toward long-term solutions, mainly addressing the issue of creating more sources for water.

“We need to develop more source. This was an issue for my parents when they were farming. This has been an issue for 40-plus years,” Watanabe said. “We want to support the county and the water department, but we also want to support agriculture. Hard decisions have to be made.”

Water Supply Director Dave Taylor said that the proposed increased rates would be only to encourage high users to cut back in times of drought and would not affect users who do not exceed the first tier of the rate allocation.

“If a person is very careful about his usage and is normally low usage, the shortage won’t even affect him. . . . When people are already doing the right thing, we don’t want to change that,” Taylor said.

“The sole purpose of this bill is to be ready, that if demand for an area exceeds our ability to supply, that the people at high elevations don’t have complete outages,” Taylor said. “The methodology is to use rates as a strong push to get everyone to cut back on their usage so there’s enough for everybody.”

People at higher elevations will be the first to suffer from a lack of water in times of drought, Taylor explained. Everyone, including agricultural users, needs to cut back water usage to ensure that residents located at higher elevations do not go without water, he said.

“If (agricultural) users don’t cut back when there’s a water shortage, there won’t be anything left for anyone else,” he said.

According to his calculations, Upcountry customers use about 8 million gallons of water per day, with agricultural users accounting for nearly half of that.

“It’s math, not policy,” Taylor said.

The usage fees and policies outlined in the deferred bill would apply only to water systems managed by the county, not private systems. The department has no jurisdiction over water on the island of Lanai, for example, because residents there are on private systems that would fall most likely under the governance of the state Public Utilities Commission, Taylor said.

While Taylor has told The Maui News in the past that the department welcomes discussion and community involvement, a timely resolution would be ideal.

“My worry of not having a bill like this is that if there is a drought two months from now, we don’t have the tools to control that,” Taylor said.

But small farmer Lloyd Fischel, who operates Fragrant Orchids of Maui, said that penalizing customers to promote water conservation will not work.

“This bill is supposed to be about conservation, yet there is nothing that promotes conservation outside of penalties for water use,” Fischel said in public testimony Wednesday. “We the public are not customers. We are citizens who have the right to water.”

Taylor said that it is not the water department’s goal to generate income from the increased rates that would be charged during times of drought. In fact, he said that he hopes at the end of the year, the revenue is “zero.”

“We don’t want the money,” Taylor said. “These proposed shortage rates are not to generate revenue, they are simply trying to get people to conserve. The only thing that really controls people to not leave their faucets running is one, their sense of community, and two, they don’t want the bill.”

He added that the department is continually looking into initiatives to develop more sources – whether from surface or ground water sources. While surface water is cheaper to acquire, it is more dependent on the weather, which is difficult to predict. Ground water could be a possibility, he said, but the county would have to find and drill a number of wells. He estimates that cultivating ground water sources would cost more than $50 million.

Council Chairwoman Gladys Baisa, whose residency district is the Upcountry area, suggested that perhaps the best way to encourage water conservation is at home, starting with educating children.

“Coping with water shortages in the old days, we didn’t have dishwashers back then or washing machines. . . . We would take bath water out and water the garden with it. Nothing was wasted,” Baisa said. “We have got to teach people about how precious water is, and it needs to be conserved.”

The committee will revisit the ordinance “sometime in November” after the council has had the chance to hear more from the public, Victorino said.

“We’re not like a business. It’s a process. It’s not ‘we’re going to raise the rates, tough luck,’ ” Victorino said. “It was a great discussion. We’re well on our way there.”

* Eileen Chao can be reached at echao@mauinews.com.