Viewpoint: Now is the time to fix the water system

There’s been much discussion recently about the cost to repair the county’s aging water system, but the truth is: If our water system were a car, the “check engine” light would have been blinking for decades.

As anyone who owns a car knows, you can ignore that light for a while and still drive around. Eventually, though, your engine will start smoking and you’ll end up with a much larger repair bill than if you had fixed whatever was wrong in the first place.

We want to avoid that sort of emergency repair scenario and have been in the process of fixing the system.

The reality is that this plan will cost money and, yes, as a community, we have some tough decisions to make. Rate-payers have a choice. There is always a choice.

The options are: No rate increases and we continue to let the system deteriorate; a minimal rate increase, which means we will barely keep up with repairs but never really catch up; or increase rates in single-digit increments over the next 10 years, which will allow us to do this the right way.

There is a real cost associated with maintaining the county’s infrastructure, and the work that needs to be done involves our entire system: We have six water treatment plants, 38 pump sites, 145 water tanks and 750 miles of pipeline. It will cost roughly $20 million to $30 million per year to replace these systems as they reach the end of their operational lifetimes.

That’s what your water bill payments go toward, our water system – not for roads or parks or other departments.

This is a system that you use to cook, bathe in, water your garden and to flush. Most importantly, you drink it, which means it must meet strict water quality requirements. This is a system that everyone uses every day and, because it is always being used, it must also constantly be maintained.

While we have improved some areas of our water system, parts of it are 80 years old.

Some areas have adequate sources of water and others don’t.

We have got to bring everything up to date. Our Upcountry users suffer from summer droughts, the system leaks, pipes break and the Department of Water Supply electric bill remains the highest in the county, at $20 million a year. This has to change. We cannot continue on like this.

Just like with your vehicle, when it works perfectly, no one notices. When it breaks, it causes higher expenses, a loss of productivity and many other problems that disrupt daily life.

Again, the people of Maui County have a choice: approve the rate, suggest changes or speak out against it.

That’s how government works. The executive branch recommends a course of action (fixing the water system), the legislative branch (County Council) considers it and takes testimony from the public and then votes to approve/disapprove the measure.

I know that many of our Maui County Council members understand the need to fix our water system. I also know that they respond to their constituents and are sympathetic to their concerns. But please know this: If we wait, our bill will be larger in the future. The choice to take care of critical maintenance and making needed improvements now is much cheaper than having to take emergency action later.

So, do we fix it now or leave these problems for our children to deal with?

Also consider that all four counties are facing similar challenges. The City and County of Honolulu, for example, has already approved raising water rates by 70 percent over the next five years. In 2011, Kauai County approved 11.2 percent water rate increases every year for four years.

Neither I nor the other county mayors can turn our backs on trying to maintain and improve our infrastructure. Please support the plan to get our water system upgraded for ourselves and for future generations.

* Alan Arakawa is the mayor of Maui County.