WAILUKU - Groundwater is the most reliable source although not always the easiest to get, which makes developing groundwater sources the top priority of Mayor Charmaine Tavares' water policy.
But she also says the county needs to take advantage of every possible approach including tapping stream waters, building new reservoirs and storage tanks, encouraging conservation, reclaiming wastewater, desalination - and even encouraging homeowners and farmers to save rainwater.
Tavares and Director of Water Supply Jeff Eng laid out their ideas about how to continue to provide water for county growth in an interview Wednesday.
Little new source will be developed in the near future, but conservation has been the savior this year, Eng said. Voluntary cooperation has driven consumption in Central and South Maui down by 1.7 million gallons a day.
The Department of Water Supply is waiting for winter rains to ease summer shortages exacerbated by an unusually long and deep drought. It will need a rain of new dollars to catch up with current demand, much less meet future demands.
Demand will go up, said Tavares.
"Our overall policy is to provide water that will sustain the community and to provide new sources that will account for growth," she said.
Acknowledging she is asked why the county should accommodate growth, she said she asks not entirely facetiously:
"When are you leaving? Will we prevent anyone from moving here? Will we tell all of our families they have to ship off their children to somewhere else?
"This is America, we can't stop people from coming here," she said.
There is water, but Tavares said, "The easy water has been developed already."
Eng then is looking at where the least expensive of the high-cost new sources might be. Tavares noted an estimate that groundwater resources total at least 400 mgd, most of it underlying the East Maui watershed. That raises the other issue.
"Do you move the people to where the water is or do you move the water to where the people are?"
She made it clear her choice is to move the water to where people are already living to protect the watersheds.
Two decades ago, the old Board of Water Supply intended to drill wells in Haiku and Kailua, primarily for Central and South Maui consumption to relieve the pressure on the Iao aquifer, the island's biggest developed source of drinking water.
The Coalition to Protect East Maui Water Resources challenged an environmental impact statement, and Tavares' predecessor, Alan Arakawa, gave up. He signed an agreement to kill the Department of Water Supply's East Maui Water Use and Development Plan. In return, the coalition dropped objections to use of the already developed Hamakuapoko wells - which the County Council subsequently decided should not be used because the water is contaminated with low levels of a pesticide, DBCP. So the department came away with no new water.
To return to East Maui, the department has started planning from scratch, including preparation of new water use and development plans and eventually a new environmental impact statement. It will be time-consuming and expensive, but Tavares said if the county doesn't get started, it will never get there.
In the meantime, the department is advancing another Upcountry reservoir to draw on East Maui's seasonally abundant surface water. The plan for a 150 million-gallon hole in the ground might cost up to $100 million. Land alone is estimated to cost $15 million, Eng said.
Eventually groundwater is preferable, Tavares said, because it is more reliable. Aquifers can produce water at a constant rate and are hardly affected by seasonal patterns of rainfall.
But the department has a list of other needs for its cash:
= Speeded up replacement of existing infrastructure, which has not kept pace for years. In the current budget, the department is spending $3 million to replace lines, although an old consultant's study recommended $8 million.
To get spending up to current levels, the department had to persuade the County Council to agree to a 12 percent rate increase. If he had bumped up line replacement up to $8 million, Eng said he would have needed a 27 percent increase.
"Water is the biggest bargain on the island," Tavares said.
= Protection of water sources and of wellhead areas. The county has contributed to more than half a dozen watershed conservation projects, fighting invasive species that threaten the health of the watersheds. The department also needs to be vigilant about development and land uses (including farming) in areas around wells and areas intended for future wells, to prevent contamination of the aquifer below.
While the department is seeking state and federal financial assistance, it will have to fund most of its needs itself, either through increases in water rates or heavier use of bonds, or both.
Eng, who managed the private Kaanapali water system before taking the county job, said he was surprised, in reading old reports, to discover that the county has almost never developed domestic water on its own.
In the '70s, the state paid for water wells in West Maui, and in the '80s the state and federal agencies funded much of the 100 million gallon Kahakapao Reservoir high on the flank of Haleakala.
The county has participated in joint ventures with private developers, most famously the Central Maui transmission line that opened Kihei to development. The county participated in developing wells in Waiehu, but the private partners installed the transmission line to Wailea and Makena.
Since then, the county mostly has accepted wells developed privately and turned over to the county to operate - while granting the developer use of the water. The Haiku well that freed Kula water for Everett Dowling's Kulamalu development is a prime example. The department got most of the water from the well developed by Dowling, which was the biggest gain in source for Upcountry in years.
Tavares said the county should seek other joint venture opportunities. Not only can it stretch water department dollars, but the state Commission on Water Resource Management gives well permits first come, first served. One or two wells into a small aquifer can use up all the source.
An example is Waikapu, an aquifer with an estimated sustainable yield of only 2 mgd. A private developer already has permits for two wells that will be competing with any county use. The department drilled a well there decades ago but had a dry hole. It is preparing to try again.
"I wish dowsing rods worked," Tavares said.
More drilling into the Iao aquifer is not an option, because it is at its estimated sustainable yield of 20 million gallons a day. Going north, the county water department developed wells in the Waihee aquifer, good for a maximum 4 million gallons a day.
But, Eng said, new hydrological models done by the U.S. Geological Service suggest that going further toward Kahakuloa would find only small yields per well, while the cost to tap the sources would climb, not only for land and transmission lines but to bring in roads and electricity.
Tavares and Eng restarted a program for water use and development plans to coincide with an updated Maui County General Plan that will provide more precise ideas of where growth will occur and how water demand will change.
Water use and development plans are being prepared for each island. Drafts are available at the department's Web site, www.mauiwater.org.
For now, conservation is the quickest and cheapest "source" of water. Public education is the key, Tavares and Eng agree, and Eng is pleased with the response to appeals by the department this year.
The basis for the appeals is the years of less-than-normal rainfall, although the appeal for the Central Maui system is based mostly on the need to keep demand below the sustainable yield of the sources, about 25 mgd.
The water department has placed the Central Maui system, which includes the region from Waihee to Paia to Kihei-Makena, under a "drought watch" since last summer, with a standing appeal for all users to cut consumption by 10 percent.
Last August, the department also ordered a mandatory 10 percent cutback on the Upcountry system, which relies primarily on surface water sources. The drought warning was lifted in January, but the department in May issued a new drought watch asking for voluntary 5 percent cutbacks.
Looming over the customers if they don't cooperate is the threat of mandatory orders and even, as a last resort, moratoriums or allocations, instead of the first come, first served policy that has been the department's policy- even on the Upcountry system where there is a priority waiting list for new meters.
The county experimented with allocations and moratoriums on sewer hookups in South Maui in 1988, and Tavares said it could come to that with water. First in line, probably, would be projects for affordable housing and public uses, like schools.
But she said she doesn't want to stop issuing meters if she can help it, because she doesn't want to bring the economy to a halt. To those who question why meters for additional uses are still available while existing users are being asked to cut back, she asks her own question: If conservation makes it possible to keep issuing meters, why shouldn't consumers cooperate?
However, she also said the department is looking at further use of tiered rates to both encourage conservation and to raise some of the revenue that will be needed.
The county has a three-tier rate now (plus a separate ag rate). The more you use, the higher the rate. Eng is considering asking the council for another higher top tier, and a bigger spread.
But Tavares relates a tale she heard of a mansion owner in Omaopio who was bragging about his bill of $1,200 for two months.
Other Upcountry homeowners, including Tavares' mother, pride themselves on keeping their water use under 100 gallons per day.
"My mother and her friends remember the old days, when you put a tobacco bag over the faucet," she said. "You boiled the water and let the brown water settle in a jug. You drank the water off the top."
Eng adds that old-timers can remember that there used to be hours of the day when pressure dropped to nothing.
Because wells and big reservoirs take years to deliver, Tavares says she is looking at encouraging Upcountry farmers to return to the practice of storing their own water.
A few picturesque redwood tanks from yesteryear testify to the days before there was any county storage Upcountry and people knew they were on their own in the summer. Tavares does not have a definite proposal but said she is thinking of some sort of county grant to farmers who build storage tanks.
"Water is a complex industry," she says. "There is not just one thing for the whole island or for the whole county."
She says she knows some people would rather not see more water available. They see that as a way to damp down otherwise irresistible growth.
She doesn't see that as an answer. Besides squelching the economy, no new houses mean more families crowding into one, that can lead to all sorts of social tensions, she said. That is too high a price to pay, she said.
Harry Eagar can be reached at email@example.com.