WAILUKU - Maui County water users could see 6 to 8 percent increases in their water bills next year so that the Department of Water Supply can perform maintenance and upgrades of aging systems and issue more water meters, a department official said Thursday.
Deputy Water Supply Director Paul Meyer explained to the Cost of Government Commission that it will be up to the County Council to determine how it will fund the maintenance and expansion of the water system. The options are rate increases, hiking the price of water meters or bond issuance.
"How do we fund this growth?" will be the question the council will have to answer, he said.
The council this month passed its budget for fiscal 2013, which contained higher water rates. On average, rates went up about 4 percent, he said.
Meyer also told commission members that the department is making headway in alleviating the backlog of people on the Upcountry water meter waiting list. Meyer's presentation was made at the commission's meeting Thursday morning in the Mayor's Conference Room at the Kalana O Maui building.
Commission members also heard from scientist and Kula resident Richard Pohle, who is the founder of the Upcountry Meter List Association. Pohle, who is also on the list, said that by not issuing water meters Upcountry the county is losing out on money from potential new customers and developments. The county may face lawsuits including those alleging discrimination because water is a public resource, he said.
Purchasing the private Piiholo South well and combining its output with the county's Pookela well could satisfy the needs of those waiting for meters, he said.
Pohle, a physicist by trade and a candidate for the Upcountry residency council seat, said that if the entire list of people on the waiting list began using water from the system, there would be a 25 percent increase in usage that would generate $16 million in new revenue.
Meyer told the commission that more people can be taken off the list as the department acquires essential backup for its systems. He said if everything goes well with an environmental assessment on the Hamakuapoko wells more people could be issued meters, possibly next year.
In October, the County Council voted to reopen the Hamakuapoko wells, despite ongoing concerns about pesticide-tainted water. Alarm about the pesticides led the council to ban use of the wells in 2006. But last year, the council decided to reopen the wells for agricultural purposes, for public consumption during droughts and as a backup for the county's Upcountry water system.
The Hamakuapoko water would be treated so that it would be safe for human drinking, the county has said.
The water department also is looking into uniform disinfection protocols for all Upcountry water. This will allow water to be used across different systems. Currently, water is disinfected differently in some systems and as a result cannot be comingled, Meyer said.
The waiting list has about 1,300 people seeking about 2,600 meters, Meyer said. About 25 letters to those on the waiting list have been sent out, inviting them to apply for water meters. Another 25 letters will be mailed out soon, he added.
Water Supply Director Dave Taylor told The Maui News last year that probably fewer than 50 applicants would receive their meters this year through the purchase of more water source capacity from the Kaupakalua well.
Meyer told commission members the department will soon have an improvement and expansion plan for the Maui County water system for the next 20 years that will be presented to the council's Water Resources Committee.
Outside the meeting, Meyer said the overall plan will cost about $100 million, which the council will have to determine how to fund.
He added that Maui County has the lowest water rates in the state and pointed to a draft report that showed that an average household on Kauai, Oahu and the Big Island (that uses 16,000 gallons a month and has a 5/8-inch meter) pays $68.91 a month, versus Maui County residents who pay $54.60 a month on average.
Even with the increase in next year's water rates, an average Maui County household will pay $58.16, still lower than the current average of the other counties.
* Melissa Tanji can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.