When Maui County Water Director David Taylor cautioned the County Council against using water as a tool for controlling growth, he might not have made clear why it's counterproductive to county policy ("Taylor: Future service is based on how much council wants to spend," The Maui News, Aug. 17, 2011).
But Maui County policymakers have let county inaction contradict policy for more than 30 years - ever since the 1978 County Charter first turned over responsibility for water department operations to the mayor and council.
Water is an essential service that requires policymakers to meet needs of current and future users. Beyond normal cost increases for operations and maintenance, Maui County's water department must comply with evolving mandates of the Safe Drinking Water Act while expanding sources, storage and distribution systems to accommodate increased demand from population growth.
When Maui County was undergoing a development boom in the 1970s, water rates and fees established by a semi-autonomous Board of Water Supply were a source of political angst for council members, whose supporters protested water costs. The council members proposed the charter amendment that turned the Department of Water Supply into a county department whose budget, rates and fees must be approved by the council before taking effect.
Approval of the revision in 1978 illustrates the cautionary adage: Be careful what you wish for; you might get it.
Having gained control over the water department's finances, county councils through the years have stalled water projects to avoid the need to increase rates and fees. Inadequate funding means aging waterlines weren't upgraded, and there was minimal development of new sources and storage.
A semi-autonomous Board of Water Supply can falter in managing a water system as well. Oahu's Department of Water Supply is acknowledging that it failed to maintain its waterlines, and now an epidemic of waterline failures is requiring urgent projects that will force higher rate increases.
Maui County has not yet suffered the level of waterline breaks occurring on Oahu, where systems through urban Honolulu are older than most systems on Maui. But Maui does not have the quality water sources that Oahu has. Developing new sources here will entail higher costs.
Under the 1968 charter, the Maui water board planned water infrastructure based on land use plans and zoning approved by the council. It set rates to cover costs of providing water to existing consumers and a depreciation schedule to plan for replacing older systems. It established fees for source development and storage paid by developments that would require additional water. As an appointed board, it was insulated from public protests over costs charged to the users.
As elected officials, County Council members are subject to pressure from voters and developers objecting to higher costs. Council members in 1976 who wanted more control over the water department didn't recognize that a semi-autonomous water board also insulated them from responsibility for raising rates and fees.
The 1978 council members got the responsibility they wanted. The 2011 members must take responsibility to raise revenues to maintain aging waterlines and develop sources.
Delay is an option. But it only puts vulnerable water users at risk when waterlines fail and water sources run short. The water users most at risk are Maui County's farmers, despite county policies that purport to protect agriculture.
When water systems run short, the county will order consumers to cut back water use. For households, water use cuts are an inconvenience. Adequate water for health and sanitation is always a priority. Adequate water for farming is not. For farmers, water use cutbacks can be the difference between survival and failure.
* Edwin Tanji is a former city editor of The Maui News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. "Haku Mo'olelo," "writing stories," is about stories that are being written or have been written. It appears every Friday.