Voluntary Upcountry water cutbacks lifted

WAILUKU – The heavy rains over the weekend were enough to fill the dry reservoirs of the Upcountry water system to the point where the water department Wednesday lifted its 20 percent voluntary water cutback.

“I’m glad to tell you everything is full,” said water director Dave Taylor to the members of Maui County Council’s Water Resources Committee. “We just made it.”

If it had not rained this weekend, there may not have been enough water to supply the 8 million gallons a day used by Upcountry customers, Taylor told the committee, which discussed a water conservation and water shortage bill Wednesday morning.

The Department of Water Supply had been making contingencies for a continued water shortage Upcountry, but Taylor continued to advocate for the bill that raises rates during droughts.

The water director said that the department was considering a procedure similar to “rolling blackouts” for electricity, where water would be systematically turned off in parts of Upcountry while allowing other parts to draw water. It would have been a tricky process because water needed to be pumped to customers at higher elevations before downslope customers used up all the water.

The heavy rains this weekend remedied the situation. On Wednesday, the Piiholo Reservoir was filled to the brim with 50 million gallons. Waikamoi’s two reservoirs saw the most drastic changes; both were empty until Saturday. On Monday, there were 28.2 million gallons in the two reservoirs with a 30 million gallon capacity.

The 100 million gallon Kahakapao reservoirs held 89.4 million gallons Wednesday.

With the weekend rain, and more expected this week, there is enough water to last Upcountry users at least into the summer, Taylor said.

This would give the council time to work on the water shortage bill, he said. The bill being considered by the committee calls for higher rates, increasing with the severity of the water shortage.

Taylor admitted that he should have taken steps months ago to prevent the close call, where the department could not supply the demand for water Upcountry, but said he was awaiting passage of the water shortage bill.

If it was law, the water department would have had another tool to curtail water usage.

Voluntary water cutbacks alone do not work, he said. On Aug. 5, the department called for a voluntary 5 percent water use reduction. On Oct. 30, he raised the voluntary reduction level to 20 percent.

What happened was that Upcountry users seemed to heed the warnings for two days, then water usage bounced back up to normal levels, he said.

The raising of water rates during water shortages is an “industry standard” and has been used in other states with success, Taylor said. He noted that the increased rates were not intended to raise money but to reduce water use.

Some testifiers Wednesday said that raising rates had not led to the desired water reduction in some places, but Taylor countered that “the problem is there isn’t anything better.”

Farmers and ranchers testifying opposed the measure, saying that it was unfair to raise rates on them at a time when they will need the water the most.

Taylor said that about 40 percent of Upcountry water users are in the agriculture industry. If those in the agriculture industry were exempt from the higher rates or water restrictions, then the other 60 percent of users would have to carry the water reduction load and possibly cut back on water as much as 95 percent, he said.

The current version of the bill gives agricultural consumers 90 days before they are required to pay the higher shortage rates. The idea is to give them time to make business decisions.

The current version also gives agricultural users 90 days before they are subject to water use restrictions.

Even those allowances did not satisfy farmers and ranchers, who have repeatedly said that crops and livestock will need water well beyond that time period. They also called for a study to evaluate what would happen to the agriculture industry if the bill was adopted.

Committee Chairman Mike Victorino emphasized that the current version of the bill was a “first step” to enable water conservation during water shortages but also to protect the agricultural community.

The measure was deferred.

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