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Purchase of watershed could be delayed

Pandemic drained funds at county, state levels

With county and state funding being drained due to COVID-19, the long-attempted government acquisition of a private water delivery system that feeds 70 percent of Maui’s drinking water may be delayed even further.

County Water Director Jeff Pearson said during a meeting Thursday that his department had allocated $2.5 million to evaluate the Wailuku Water Co. water delivery system in a possible purchase, but it was emptied to half a million with COVID-19 budget cuts. The fiscal year 2020-21 budget has yet to be approved by Maui County Council.

Citing losses, Wailuku Water Co. has sought for nearly two decades to sell its water delivery system, along with nearly 9,000 acres of Na Wai Eha watershed land in the West Maui Mountains. Na Wai Eha, or the “Four Great Waters” of Wailuku and Waihee rivers and Waikapu and Waiehu streams, provides about 70 percent of county drinking water to Maui residents, along with allocations for private landowners, companies and other customers.

In 2016, the county considered purchasing the company’s assets, including the ditch system and lands, for $9.5 million, but the council’s Budget and Finance Committee deferred it. At the time, the county was paying the company $250,000 for 3 million gallons of water a year.

Now the price tag is higher than that amount according to a recent appraisal, Pearson said, who spoke at Thursday’s Board of Water Supply meeting. He did not know if the appraisal could be made public. 

Pearson added that the county is not yet able to grasp what it would be purchasing.

“We haven’t been able to touch the product that we could purchase, so it’s kind of buying a Volkswagen or a Cadillac, you’re not sure what you’re buying,” he said.

Pearson said that there is still $9 million in the county’s current fiscal year capital improvement projects budget for the possible acquisition. The funding has not yet been authorized for bond and would lapse at the end of the calendar year.

Meanwhile, an effort by state lawmakers to buoy the county purchase with state and federal funds may also be in limbo, Pearson indicated.

House Bill 2555 and its companion, Senate Bill 2692, aimed to set aside money from the state land conservation fund to buy the Na Wai Eha watershed. Early versions called for matching funds from county and state, Pearson said. SB 2692 was revised to have the state purchase the surrounding land, but the county would have the option to purchase the water system.

“But it may be dead,” Pearson said.

One of the lawmakers to introduce the House bill, Rep. Troy Hashimoto, whose district includes Wailuku, said Thursday that the bill isn’t dead and the effort remains a priority. The state Legislature recessed Thursday after a two-week emergency session. It is expected to resume in mid-June and close at the end of July.

“There is no funding in the current budget for the legacy lands because we’re not sure what that will look like in a few months (due to COVID-19),” Hashimoto said. “It’s not technically dead, it’s still kind of pending.

“It is still a priority for us, and we are going to try and figure out something. We are just not sure what it’s going to look like,” he said.

Central Maui Sen. Gil Keith-Agaran, vice-chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, added Thursday that SB 2692 isn’t needed to move the purchase forward. 

HB 2725 SD1, the CIP budget bill, authorizes $5 million in federal funding to acquire the Na Wai Eha watershed but does need the state or the county to provide the balance of the $8 million to $9 million purchase price, Keith-Agaran said. 

“It reflects the continued interest of the state in acquiring the watershed,” he said.

Both the state and county may need to complete environmental assessments or impact statements to comply with Hawaii law in order to make the purchase, Keith-Agaran noted.

* Kehaulani Cerizo can be reached at kcerizo@mauinews.com.

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