WAILUKU - A Maui County Council committee on Monday advanced the second piece of a three-part package aimed at eliminating the long-standing Upcountry water meter waiting list.
The Committee on Water Resources voted 4-1 in favor of a bill that would authorize the director of the Department of Water Supply to declare periods of water shortages countywide that would trigger higher water rates to encourage conservation. Any declaration would require approval from the mayor.
Council members Gladys Baisa, Elle Cochran, Riki Hokama and Mike White voted for the bill, while committee chairman, Mike Victorino, voted against it.
Victorino had favored an amended version that he proposed to exempt agricultural properties. He said his proposal was in response to concerns from farmers and ranchers who felt that increased rates would harm their operations.
The bill the committee advanced would establish two severity levels for water shortages but does not include any proposed rates to correspond with those levels. A separate draft bill containing proposed rates - by residential, general and agricultural categories - has yet to be heard by the council Budget and Finance Committee.
Mayor Alan Arakawa on Monday spoke in favor of the measure to authorize water shortages, saying it would allow the county to quickly react during emergencies to protect water levels.
He cautioned against Victorino's proposal to exempt agricultural users.
"I don't think that may be the best thing to do, having been a farmer myself," the mayor said.
He said half of Upcountry Maui's water goes to farmers whose heavy usage can quickly drain the system's reserves.
"If (agricultural users) are not subject to some kind of controls as well, you will not have control over your availability of water in the Upcountry system. . . . I can see that being very problematic."
Victorino countered that the county needs to take care of its farmers and not simply "talk the talk."
"It's very important that we don't lose sight of our farmers," Victorino said. "I disagree with the mayor in the sense we're giving them special treatment."
Carver Wilson with the Maui County Farm Bureau testified that the organization supports the ability for the county to declare droughts but wanted agricultural exemptions from increased rates and penalties for not reducing use. The group represents commercial agricultural operations on Maui.
In response to the mayor's concerns, Wilson said Upcountry farmers are trying to use less water through conservation measures such as drip irrigation. He added that farmers are mindful of their water consumption because it goes to their bottom line.
Council Member White said he wouldn't be comfortable giving farmers a complete exemption from increased drought rates when other water users will be charged "hugely higher" rates.
Under the water department's draft budget bill proposing increased rates, agricultural consumers using more than 15,000 gallons a month would see a 10 percent rate increase in stage 1 conditions, and a 20 percent increase in stage 2 conditions. Rates would be unchanged for those using less than that amount.
That compares to proposed rate increases for residential consumers of up to 100 percent for those using more than 35,000 gallons a month.
Hokama said he couldn't support Victorino's proposed exemption for farmers, noting that agricultural operations already enjoy subsidized real property tax rates.
Other testifiers took issue with language in the bill that would allow mechanical malfunctions and human error to qualify as triggers for declaring a water shortage.
White asked Water Supply Director Dave Taylor why the county should be able to charge higher rates when there's a system failure.
"We are not a private company. The users are the owners," Taylor said.
Taylor stressed that his department is not interested in generating revenues from the increased rates. In fact, he said any revenues could be directed to the general fund. The goal, he said, is to change the behavior of water consumers.
The two conservation measures would add to a third bill seeking to ban new applicants from joining the waiting list for Upcountry water meters.
Taylor has said the department can eliminate the waiting list by maximizing the use of surface water in Upcountry while implementing conservation incentives.
The list, established in 1994, included nearly 1,500 applicants as of June 30.
That bill to close the list has already received initial approval from the full council. If approved on second reading, set for Dec. 7, it would essentially establish a last day to sign up. From that point, the department would offer meters to those on the priority list in the order that they appear on the list.
* Nanea Kalani can be reached at email@example.com.