WAILUKU - Members of the Lanai Water Advisory Committee said they will continue to meet and comment on local water issues, even after officials said the county would no longer recognize the group.
In a letter to committee members last month, newly appointed county Water Director Dave Taylor said the group's input had been valuable but that there was no longer a need for them to meet, because the Lanai Water Use and Development Plan, which they had been tasked with reviewing, had been sent to the Maui County Council for approval.
"LWAC members are free to meet and talk about water issues as community members, but not in the official capacity of members of the LWAC holding an officially recognized meeting," he wrote.
But committee members said their mandate from the county was to monitor the implementation of Lanai water policies - and that they intended to finish the job.
"We do not agree that you have the authority to unilaterally alter the scope of our responsibilities - duties which we have faithfully carried out for well over a decade," wrote committee Chairman Reynold "Butch" Gima in a reply to Taylor. "Protecting Lanai's 'most precious resource - water' (as you noted in your letter) does not end with the production of a draft plan, it is a continuous effort."
Lanai faces a number of serious water challenges. With low rainfall and no surface-water sources, the island's aquifers are mainly recharged by a fast-dwindling "cloud forest" that harvests moisture from passing mist. And county experts have previously said that if planned development projects were to be completely built out, they would exceed the island's total water capacity.
Lanai's water infrastructure is also aging and full of leaks, with studies estimating that as much as 28 percent of the water pumped on the island is lost before it reaches the tap.
All of Lanai is on a private water system operated by the island's major landowner, Castle & Cooke Resorts.
Gima said that after the group received Taylor's letter, Castle & Cooke officials told him they would no longer participate in any water committee meetings.
"They're not going to be attending any LWAC meetings unless (Taylor) calls them," Gima said. "But LWAC will continue to meet."
Gima said he hoped to speak with Taylor about the issue.
In an interview at his Wailuku office last week, Taylor said LWAC was formed to review and comment on the Lanai Water Use and Development Plan.
The final draft of that plan is now waiting for approval by the Maui County Council.
"Depending on the action council takes, the LWAC may have a large role (in the future), or they may have no role," he said. "I really don't know. So because of where we are in the process, there's really nothing for them to do right now with that document. We're waiting for the council."
The plan includes information about Lanai's water systems, as well as analysis of projected future water demands on the island. It also outlines various options for managing the system in the years ahead.
Taylor said his office "reformatted" the plan from earlier drafts, moving some technical information into appendices and editing it so that it had a more similar format to the Central Maui Water Use and Development Plan approved by the Maui County Council last year.
But he said the substance of the plan was not changed from the version LWAC and county Board of Water Supply members worked on.
"None of the information was lost," he said.
Gima said his group was still reviewing Taylor's final draft but that overall, he didn't see any major concerns with it, and he liked the new format.
"The initial response has been fairly positive," Gima said. "I think it's a lot more user friendly."
The cleaner, more concise draft could also be more "palatable" to the Maui County Council, he added.
Gima said his main concern was that his group continue to have input on Lanai water issues.
After Taylor's letter, and Castle & Cooke's indication that it would stop attending LWAC meetings, Gima said, the group was taking a new look at pursuing designation of the Lanai aquifer as a state water management area. He said committee members were researching the issue and communicating with the state Commission on Water Resource Management to better understand their options.
"It's something we haven't considered in a while, and in light of these changes, we thought it might be worthwhile to explore whether we want to go down this path or not," he said.
* Ilima Loomis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.