When he introduced a bill to revise Maui County's water availability law, Council Member Mike Victorino said the county should be responsible for developing and controlling water use.
"This is one method of putting the onus back on us," he said.
That's misreading changes in the law through the decades. Maui County never gave up responsibility for developing and controlling water use. It just failed to follow through on its responsibilities. Still Victorino's comments may be well directed if he intends that the County Council must be held to account for the use of water.
It was the County Council in 1978 that pushed for a charter amendment that dissolved the semiautonomous Maui County Board of Water Supply, transferring the board's authority and responsibilities to the County Council and mayor. That was a formula for destabilizing the department, with water directors taking orders from the mayor but needing consent of a divergent council.
Council members through the decades have had authority to decide policy on water development and use. They have been reluctant to exercise the authority that inevitably involves conflicts from dealing with costs, vested usage, regional disputes and engineering.
Victorino's effort to make clear the County Council is responsible does nothing to assure county water users that the council will act rather than continue to engage in yearslong study and debate that achieves minimal progress on developing new water sources or better managing water usage. Setting water development and use policy means making difficult decisions. That is not something politicized governmental bodies do very well.
For starters, when a new water source is needed, the first issue is who will pay. With the semiautonomous Board of Water Supply, it was often a shared cost. Developers in need of water paid assessments for water development and storage. Assessments set by the board did not cover actual costs of developing a new well with storage tank, pumps and transmission lines. The board shared in the costs - or rather existing water users shared in the cost since a portion of their rate payments went to water capital improvements.
That is, rate payers helped to develop water for future users.
In a few cases, the water board required private developers to develop water sources and infrastructure. The prime example was the Central Maui Water Transmission agreement, in which four private companies developed new wells and transmission lines to their project sites, and turned over the system to the Board of Water Supply - serving as a prototype for the 2007 water availability law that Victorino is proposing to amend.
But very few land developers are willing, or able, to cover the costs of developing new water sources and systems. And, when a developer provides the water, the county has less leverage over where and what the developer builds.
Alternatively, setting source and storage assessments high to cover all costs would similarly limit who can afford to develop.
Costs are not the only issue.
New water sources will involve transferring water from regions where it is still available to regions where it will be used. That creates conflict with users in a source region when the state Water Code requires government increasingly to recognize claims of appurtenant rights - the rights of landowners to access water in the vicinity of their lands - as well as impacts of changes in natural flows on downstream environments.
Then there are competing claims for priority to water that is developed.
Water development and use is fraught with complex conflicts and difficult decisions. County Councils have been more inclined to put those off than to make them.
* Edwin Tanji is a former city editor of The Maui News. He can be reached at email@example.com. "Haku Mo'olelo," "writing stories," is about stories that are being written or have been written. It appears every Friday.