WAILUKU - Although a drought watch has been declared for Upcountry, the current conditions would not trigger a water shortage declaration and higher rates under a bill pending before the Maui County Council's Water Resources Committee.
Water Director David Taylor said earlier this week that if the measure were in place today he would probably not activate a stage 1 or stage 2 water shortage because the department has "asked for voluntary conservation because water availability is decreasing, but we are still able to meet demand."
"The shortage rates (and classifications) are for times we cannot meet demand, and conservation is mandatory to avoid complete outages for some customers," he said in an email.
Unlike the rules currently in place, the proposed measure would raise rates as a way to reduce water use in times of shortage.
In the bill, a stage 1 shortage will exist if the director determines that anticipated water demand for an area or for the county water system is projected to exceed available water supply by up to 20 percent. A stage 2 shortage will be declared if water demand is anticipated to exceed available water supply by more than 20 percent.
Taylor said that his department watches the weather but cannot accurately predict future precipitation. He is not sure how long the current drought watch will continue or if mandatory cutbacks will be necessary, the next tool he has to manage short supplies under the current county laws.
On Aug. 30, water customers in Upcountry were asked voluntarily conserve water by 10 percent or more until further notice. Surface water sources are low and dwindling due to dry weather conditions, Taylor said.
There was a little rainfall recently, which was reflected in the department's Upcountry Water Report. The Waikamoi reservoirs, which rely on surface water, have been empty. But on Wednesday, the reservoirs contained 900,000 gallons or 3 percent of capacity because of the rainfall.
The Wailoa Ditch, too, had been running low at around 12 percent of its nearly 200 million gallon a day capacity for the past week. It saw a bump to 64 percent of capacity Tuesday because of the rains.
The water shortage bill pending before the committee "is a tool to manage our system through these (dry) events," Taylor said.
The water director, however, will have to wait on the bill a little longer.
The council's Water Resources Committee on Wednesday deferred the measure again. Farmers and ranchers continued to be concerned about how they would be affected by the higher water shortage rates that would kick in in droughts - the period when they need water the most to keep their crops alive. Others said that the agricultural sector was being targeted unfairly and that the bill could further push Maui's farmers out of business.
Although the bill is aimed for conservation, committee Chairman Michael Victorino said after the meeting that residents and farmers are "scared" of the water rate hikes during water shortage declarations. He added that the problem of insufficient water has been around for decades.
"This problem has existed, 60, 70, years," Victorino said. "This is nothing new."
Currently, Upcountry receives 75 percent of its water from surface sources, which fluctuates with rainfall. Victorino would like to see that ratio at 60 percent groundwater and 40 percent surface water.
"My commitment to the public is to find the best solution," Victorino added.
Under the current form of the water shortage bill, the water director could call for voluntary and mandatory restrictions and special water shortage rates, which would be set in the annual budget.
During a water shortage, public notifications will need to be made weekly in a newspaper. The measure also would call for the water director to submit a report on the shortage to the council within 45-days of a water shortage declaration.
The bill also proposes to exempt agricultural consumers from any water shortage rate increases for the first 60 days after a water shortage has been declared.
Areas affected by a water shortage because of infrastructure malfunction, mechanical malfunction or human error would be exempt from the water rate increases.
* Melissa Tanji can be reached at email@example.com.