KIHEI - A group including environmentalists, water users and experts will meet for the next 10 months to brainstorm alternatives to the county's wastewater injection wells, but many said it would be difficult to meet Mayor Charmaine Tavares' initial goal of eliminating the controversial system within the next decade.
Finding the money to pay for a massive system overhaul, identifying customers willing to use treated wastewater and addressing a negative public perception of the product are just some of the challenges to Tavares' goal of eventually boosting the county's water recycling rate from 22 percent today to 100 percent, they said.
Tavares convened a working group in October and gave the 21 volunteer members a year to make recommendations for how the county could increase its wastewater recycling.
Resolving the dirty-water issue certainly is not lacking community support, but it appears to have a few major stumbling blocks, county water quality experts said. The first question is as common as they come these days: How is the county going to pay for it?
The county has five wastewater treatment plants and 18 injection wells. The county pours 9 million gallons a day of treated wastewater hundreds of feet underground through the wells; environmentalists say the practice kills reefs when the nutrient-rich water seeps into the ocean and stimulates large algae blooms.
There are thousands of injection wells in use across the United States.
The county's treated wastewater is clean enough for toilets but not to drink, so it requires a dedicated service line. Those new pipelines are very expensive to build but would help a lot of customers on water-thirsty Maui, Tavares has said.
"One of the other challenges is getting people to accept it and use treated (recycled) water," said county Environmental Management Director Cheryl Okuma.
Right now, almost all of the county's treated wastewater is used to irrigate landscapes at hotels and public buildings or for construction site dust control and firefighting. However, farmers have not been lining up for recycled water.
The county's biggest recycled water customer is the Kaanapali golf courses, which use 1 million gallons a day, Okuma said. The county also is in the process of negotiating with another potential user for 180,000 gallons a day, she added, but that's still not nearly enough to suck up the 9 million gallons produced.
County Water Recycling Program Coordinator Steve Parabicoli said that in Kihei, which has a newer treatment plant and recycled water twice the salinity as Lahaina's 1920s-era system, lots of businesses have been using the less expensive recycled water. It's been more a question of getting access to it, he said.
Tavares has proposed using some of the treated wastewater to grow algae as an alternative fuel source. Okuma said a few companies have expressed interest, but no serious partners have come forward yet.
Currently, there are no county capital improvement projects in the pipeline to address the mayor's 100 percent water recycling goal, Okuma said. She noted that is one of the main tasks of this new Maui Wastewater Community Working Group.
County Wastewater Reclamation Division staff have identified a number of potential locations for waterlines and holding tanks in Lahaina and South Maui to serve new recycled water customers, such as hotels and more golf courses.
It's just a fact that they will face some serious financing hurdles, Parabicoli said.
Several members of the working group agreed during a public meeting at the Maui Economic Development Board on Thursday that developing a 25-year action plan is more realistic than five years, as was previously suggested.
However, audience member and marine biologist Hannah Bernard said that she was not pleased with the stretched-out timelines or "advisory" capacity of the group.
"You should be putting together an urgent plan," the ocean activist said. "In just one year, millions of gallons of polluted water will make its way into the ocean."
Under mandates established by federal law, the Wastewater Reclamation Division is self-funded entirely from fees paid by users. Sewer fees pay for operational costs as well as to pay back money borrowed for wastewater projects.
Okuma said recycled water customers only pay for 24 percent of the program; the rest is subsidized by sewage customers. Meanwhile, those rates continue to rise, even without adding new infrastructure. In the past two years alone, county councilors have needed to raise fees by a total of 28 percent in order to keep up with system costs.
For instance, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has refused for more than five years now to renew the Lahaina Wastewater Reclamation Facility's permit. Tavares said it would cost up to $30 million to bring the facility into compliance and reduce the amount of fecal matter, nitrogen and unfiltered solids in its treated wastewater. The county has been negotiating with the feds to resolve the issue and is awaiting a decision.
The EPA has been accused of enforcing unfunded mandates, especially after it cost the state millions by banning large-capacity cesspools. And in 1999, the EPA issued another consent decree, demanding that the county minimize the number of sewer spills. It's also banned cesspools.
The county has since spent tens of millions of dollars replacing a dizzying array of old sewer lines that overflowed during rainstorms.
Perhaps even more money continues to be spent on replacing leaky water and sewer lines as well as pumps that outlived their effectiveness. One costly project that should get under way soon is meant to tsunami-proof the Kahului water treatment facility.
The county's list of sewer and water capital improvement needs is constantly growing as things fall apart. Officials said there are not enough dollars available through the general obligation bonding process. The other primary source of attracting money to improve infrastructure is the state revolving funds, a kind of low-interest loan program, and that's limited as well, the experts said.
According to county capital improvement projects documents, Maui County is counting on federal stimulus money to fund a number of water-related projects, including efforts to find new sources and to build Upcountry reservoirs.
Okuma said that people should understand that whatever improvements they make has benefits felt across the entire system, including for recycled water.
In the meantime, the advisory group will meet monthly. It is made up of farmers, business owners, Native Hawaiians, college students, community advocates, fishermen, scientists, landowners and environmentalists.
A complete list of members, as well as information about their mission and meeting dates, can be found online at www.co.maui.hi.us/index.aspx?NID=1495. The group is expected to produce a report by December.
The next meeting will be at 3 p.m. Feb. 4 at the Wailuku Community Center and will focus on funding questions with presentations by county Finance Director Kalbert Young and Budget Director Fred Pablo.
When the group met Thursday, it began setting goals in the typical brainstorming fashion of writing in marker on white paper. Sustainability expert and consultant Leland Chang moderated the discussion, which was overseen by Okuma and attended by about 40 people.
Their agreed-upon goals were to: achieve maximum water recycling; embrace the ancient Native Hawaiian mauka-to-makai ahupua water conservation concept; have minimum human environmental and ecological impacts; find creative financial solutions; and educate the public about conservation efforts.
"We'll know we've achieved our goal when we're no longer putting any water underground," Chang said.
A suggestion that perked some interest, but didn't seem to gain any traction, at least on Thursday, was whether it would be OK to place the recycled water back into the streams, if it were treated more.
The more than century-old practice of diverting stream water for sugar cane and pineapple has been at the heart of two ongoing legal disputes.
The water division staff said that the EPA frowns upon the practice of piping treated water into streams and rivers. But it is possible, they said. It's done on Kauai. That's also how the San Antonio River, which has a famous walkway through downtown San Antonio, is kept filled there during the summer months, the members were told.
* Chris Hamilton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.