WAILUKU - With a new mayoral administration taking office Jan. 3, several members of Mayor Charmaine Tavares' Maui Wastewater Working Group worried aloud last week that their work over the past 13 months to dramatically reduce Maui County's use of injection wells will be for nothing.
That's why they planned to continue on after what was supposed to be their last meeting on Thursday in order to lobby the public, incoming Mayor Alan Arakawa and the County Council's Budget and Finance Committee until their goals are made a reality.
However, eliminating the 9 million gallons a day of treated wastewater poured into the county's 18 injection wells will take an undetermined but huge amount of money, according to a copy of the Maui Wastewater Community Working Group's draft recommendations.
County officials and group members said, for instance, that for Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. to be able to use the county's recycled water, it will require an upgrade of the treatment, dedicated pipelines, new pumping stations and potentially as many as five 160-million-gallon storage reservoirs.
"There's no easy answers," said county Water Recycling Program Coordinator Steve Parabicoli during what was supposed to be the group's last meeting, Thursday at the Velma McWayne Santos Community Center in Wailuku.
However, another working group meeting is now scheduled from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. Dec. 2 at the Waikapu Neighborhood Center and Park.
Don Lehman, the president of the West Maui Taxpayers Association, called his experience "education and rewarding." He also said the group should be ready to do a "great deal of advocacy to secure funding."
Scott Rollins of the Department of Environmental Management called what's up ahead "an expensive proposition." But he also said that the volunteers' willingness to commit to this project and learn so much about wastewater - a subject the department employees discuss daily - has given him a host of fresh ideas.
According to a draft of the 19-member working group's recommendations, which the Department of Environmental Management will not release until next week, members said the No. 1 priority is to increase Maui County's use of recycled treated wastewater from 22 percent now to 40 percent in the near future.
"I'm afraid people will think that 40 percent is all we're aiming for," said Russell Sparks of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources Division of Aquatic Resources. "That's certainly not all I'm aiming for."
When Tavares formed the committee of volunteers from the fields of environmental protection, agriculture, energy, academics and government, she initially proposed using 100 percent of recycled wastewater within the next decade. And if the department can find more recycled wastewater users and generate revenue for the infrastructure improvements, the recommendations actually call for ultimately trying to reuse as much wastewater as possible - even if it's for pasturelands or fire prevention. Another idea is to financially penalize homes and businesses that do not use recycled wastewater when it's available.
Jeff Pearson of Maui Land & Pineapple Co. said people must be informed about how crucial an issue this is for the environment and the county's future (which regularly suffers from droughts). They will jump on board once the educational component of their plan starts to connect with many people, he said.
"They just haven't seen it yet," Pearson said.
The diverse group - whose members are sometimes at odds on other issues - devised "15 priority strategies." Just about every one of them will rely upon the accessibility of future public and private grants as well as community-agreed-upon rate increases to really eliminate the problem, some participants said.
Another goal is to eventually phase out private cesspools and injection wells.
The infrastructure costs would be significant and no estimates have been presented yet, said member Irene Bowie, who is executive director of the Maui Tomorrow Foundation. Environmentalists, such as Bowie, and some state and federal government agencies say that injection wells kill reefs when the nutrient-rich water seeps into the ocean and stimulates large algae blooms.
Water Reclamation Division Manager Dave Taylor advised the group at Thursday's meeting not to write in the recommendations that effluent from the injection wells damages the reefs.
The county has its reasons evidently, with at least two legal actions related to injection wells in the past year or so.
Still, several working group members spoke freely about how important it is to eliminate the use of injection wells.
However, some other members said they were uncomfortable making such a strong statement without more research than one or maybe two studies to back it up.
Sparks said he'd like to see the educational component of their plan focus on water conservation, since storm runoff and other human factors are also believed to be part of the equation when it comes to damaging reefs and polluting nearshore waters.
The final recommendations should be ready by the end of the month and could include some numbers for the public and politicians to chew on.
Bowie, and others, expressed gratitude to Tavares for taking on such a difficult topic, especially for the county.
"I just hope that the new mayor embraces our recommendations and it doesn't sit on a shelf somewhere collecting dust," Bowie said.
Pearson and Sparks agreed and offered to help form a subcommittee of sorts that can continue to get this message across.
"It would be a shame if we all walked out of this room today and did not act in an advisory capacity in the future," said Dan Clegg of Monsanto Co. "We've got to keep this moving."
* Chris Hamilton can be reached at email@example.com.