Drought bill shortens period for compliance by farmers

Measure heard in council committee in wake of April drought declaration Upcountry

WAILUKU — Department of Water Supply Director Dave Taylor wants to shorten — from 90 to 30 days — the amount of time farmers would need to comply with water restrictions during droughts.

The measure under review Wednesday by the Maui County Council’s Water Resources Committee would primarily affect farmers Upcountry where the water system relies on surface water supplies and chronic droughts come during the dry summer months.

An amendment to the Maui County Code at the end of 2014 set up a system of water shortage stages. In stage 1, water demand is projected to exceed supply by 1 to 15 percent, and region residents and farmers are asked to voluntarily conserve water.

The first stage 1 declaration for Upcountry came in the first week of April, and it was lifted May 1 after heavy rains filled the region’s water reservoirs. But, before the rains, the water department was only five days away from declaring a stage 3 water shortage, skipping over the less-severe stage 2 level.

A stage 2 shortage exists when demand exceeds available supply by 16 percent to 30 percent, and stage 3 happens when when demand is over 30 percent of supply.

Stages 2 and 3 trigger progressively higher water rates. Stage 3 also has time use restrictions and other mandates.

“Luckily, at the last minute, it rained,” Taylor said. “We realized how close we’ve been (to stage 2 or 3). Just a couple (more) days of a dry spell, and we would have been in that situation.”

Giving agricultural water users 90 days to comply with water restrictions doesn’t curb water consumption quick enough or with enough predictability provided by a shorter window of time, Taylor told committee members.

“We had a couple of years to try to implement this. We learned what works and what doesn’t,” he said.

Taylor said the department cannot predict 90 days out if a water shortage is likely to occur, but 30 days provides a better window to predict and react to the situation.

With 40 percent of Upcountry water customers being agricultural users not immediately affected by restrictions, Taylor said allowing those customers 90 days to comply would not help reduce water consumption enough for restrictions to be effective.

“With 40 percent of the users not affected by the restrictions, it just can’t work. This is more of a math thing, not a policy thing,” he said.

A drought could deteriorate to the point where there’s no water available when supply is running low, he said.

The Upcountry region consumes about 8 million gallons of water per day, but demand increases to about 9 million gallons per day when it’s dry.

When the three Upcountry treatment plants and four wells are working, they can produce 15 million to 16 million gallons of water per day, Taylor said.

But when surface water dries up, the daily yield drops to around 5 million gallons.

Upcountry water availability can be wet one day and dry a short time later, Taylor said.

“We are soaking wet, everything is at full capacity, but one month later we are unable to meet demand,” he said.

In response to questions from committee members, Taylor said that in the last 25 years he has not heard of Upcountry running out of surface water.

Maui County Farm Bureau Executive Director Warren Watanabe testified Wednesday, asking that the 90-day compliance period remain in place for farmers.

He said 90 days is a typical time frame to farm a crop, and it’s enough time for a farmer to choose to cancel a planting or choose another crop to plant.

But a farmer would lose money and crops if he or she were forced to harvest before the farmer is ready, as would happen with the proposed 30-day compliance period.

Watanabe said farmers have done their part in implementing water reduction techniques by using drip irrigation. When he farmed, Watanabe cut back on planting in the summer months, expecting water restrictions.

He said the shorter compliance period would be tough on ranchers as well.

“I think it comes a point when the county needs to decide what is (its) policy,” he said. “If the county supports true ag, so be it. If not, let us know, that’s all we are asking.”

Bobbie Patnode of Patnode Family Farm in Kula also asked that the current 90-day compliance period remain the same.

“Almost everything I grow takes 60 days, 60 days or more to harvest,” she said. “If I have to cut back water at 30 days, I will lose production, the vegetables won’t grow or will be unsellable.”

Taylor also is proposing to publish the water shortage notice in the newspaper once each month, for stage 1 and 2, versus the current requirement for a weekly notice as long as the shortage exists.

His third major proposed change would be to eliminate the need to notify customers in the affected affected area via the U.S. Postal Service. Taylor said most people rely on the Internet, social media and media outlets for information. The mailers do not work logistically when trying to get information out quickly.

Committee members deferred action on Taylor’s proposed changes, choosing to review the matter further in future meetings.

Most council members said they supported the agricultural community and wanted to ensure farmers had enough time to harvest and protect their crops. Councilors touched upon other ways on solving the problem, including suggesting that residential users carry more of the burden and cut back water use beginning in stage 1.

Other ideas included more water storage for the Department of Water Supply and other water infrastructure improvements. Also, in the long term, East Maui Irrigation Co.’s water system could help supplement the county’s water needs.

Taylor said the department is working on getting more water storage and developing another well for groundwater, but those improvements are several years away. Upgrades also have been made to the Upcountry system in the past years.

But, “it doesn’t add to the bottom line, to how much water is available,” he said.

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

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