WAILUKU - Maui County's Department of Water Supply announced Tuesday that it had found added water capacity in Upcountry that can be used to eliminate the area's longstanding waiting list for new water meters.
The priority list, which dates back to 1994, would be whittled down over the next two to three years under a draft action plan presented to the Maui County Council's Committee on Water Resources. The list included 1,474 applicants as of June 30.
"There is a solution to the Upcountry water meter list; you have it before you right now," Mayor Alan Arakawa told council members.
The plan calls for maximizing the use of surface water in Upcountry to "squeeze out another 2 million gallons" a day for Upcountry, Department of Water Supply Director Dave Taylor said.
Because surface water mostly comes from the diverting of streams, the added supply will be susceptible to the ups and downs of Maui's rainfall. Maximizing capacity will also mean that the system will run with a decreased "buffer," Taylor said.
To mitigate those risks, the department will be proposing higher water rates to kick in during drought seasons for heavy water users, should the plan advance.
"Today is really a major shift because over the years, the department has not had enough information to tell (the council) the real options before you," Taylor said. "That changes today."
Before moving forward, Taylor said the department will come back to the council with three proposed ordinances that will require major policy decisions.
One of those proposals will seek authorization for the mayor or the director of the Department of Water Supply to impose temporary drought rates in certain parts of the county during dry seasons to encourage conservation.
"It's not to collect more money, but to send a strong message that you need to conserve," Taylor said. "Water will always be scarce Upcountry."
Arakawa added: "During drought situations, we need the ability to have a hammer to stop people from abusing water use. The rate structure we'll propose allows us, in those short periods of time, to be able to create a hammer."
Another proposal from the water department will suggest what those increased rates should be.
The third request will ask the County Council to amend existing law and establish a last day to sign up on the Upcountry priority list.
All existing applicants on the list together would require an additional 3.5 million gallons a day. But, the water department estimates only about half of those on the list have an immediate need for a meter.
"We think that if no more people sign up . . . we think there's a very good chance we could get through the entire list, still have water left over, and in round two, let these people who want to share improvements come in," Taylor said.
Without the restrictive priority list, applicants living near one another would be able to partner to pay for the needed infrastructure to connect to the county's water system. Now, the list system prevents an applicant who is offered a meter from partnering with another applicant who is farther down on the list.
Arakawa said the list was more of a hazard than a solution. Once the list is eliminated, future meters would be "rationed."
Upcountry protea farmer and Kula resident Richard Pohle - who is No. 653 on the waiting list - said he was very appreciative of the proposed plan.
Pohle, a physicist by trade and a candidate for the Upcountry residency council seat, has been a vocal critic of the list and founded the Upcountry Meter List Association.
"Finally, we are being presented with an opportunity to work holistically with policy set by the council and some real intelligent administration talent by the mayor and his water director," Pohle said.
Pohle estimates only about 10 percent of those on the priority list want water now. He said he supports the idea of drought rates in emergencies.
"I really liked his approach where he said that he has the authority, or the mayor has the authority, in drought conditions to change the rate structure," Pohle said. "Conservation is best achieved by increasing the price when you need to."
Pohle has previously advocated that the county purchase the private Piiholo South well and combine its output with the county's Pookela well to satisfy the needs of those waiting for meters.
Taylor noted that while groundwater is more reliable than surface water, all of the county's groundwater wells operate at sea level. He said having to pump water to higher elevations is costly and results in higher water bills.
He said the action plan is only possible due to recent infrastructure upgrades, including improvements to the county's Hamakuapoko wells, Waikamoi flume and Olinda Water Treatment Plant as well as increasing storage capacity and upgrading high-lift pumps at the Kamole Water Treatment Plant.
Future operating budgets would need to include approximately $500,000 to $1 million more a year for the Kamole plant to support more meters. The department also would need to acquire spare equipment to decrease repair times.
Council Member Gladys Baisa, who holds the Upcountry residency seat, called the announcement a "historic moment."
"Everywhere I go I'm accosted by people who want to know when they're going to get their meters," she said. "We have a plan, and I think it's a very reasonable plan. I'm very excited to (be here) at this moment in time when we finally can take care of a problem that's been here forever."
Council Member Mike Victorino, who is chairman of the Committee on Water Resources and previously spent five years on the county's Board of Water Supply, said the shortage of meters for Upcountry has plagued the county for too long.
"We see a light at the end of the tunnel, which, for the longest time . . . I thought I'd never see," he said.
The council also will need to consider how to pay for the additional users to tap into the system. Taylor said the department will be looking to the council for direction on whether the cost of new meters should be entirely paid for by applicants, by existing water customers or a combination of both.
He also said the council could decide not to use the added capacity to issue new meters. The increased supply could instead be used for reserves, more agricultural activities or put back into the streams, for example.
Arakawa made clear that he wants the waiting list dissolved.
"This is a solution that we've been waiting for for a long time," he said. "People have been waiting for decades, decades. And there are many people that have suffered severe financial losses because of this water meter list. Let's get rid of it once and for all."
* Nanea Kalani can be reached at email@example.com.