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S. Maui House, Lanai council hopefuls at forum

Water quality, Kihei high school, treatment of wastewater topics at Kihei association

Tina Wildberger

State Rep. Tina Wildberger and opponent Don Couch went head to head on issues of water quality, runoff and flooding and how to safely bring kids back to school during a candidate forum held by their home district on Tuesday night.

Wildberger and Couch, both Democrats who are running for the District 11 state House seat that covers Kihei, Wailea and Makena, answered a string of timed questions related to the district during the Facebook Live event hosted by the Kihei Community Association. Many topics were related to the protection of coastal areas and wetlands, areas of high importance to the shoreline community.

Wildberger said that the state needs to prioritize clean water and fix nearshore water quality through such actions as moving away from cesspools.

“Our cesspool issue is paramount to fixing nearshore water quality issues,” Wildberger said. “We have cesspools in Maui Meadows, and I found out last week that all of the new homes on White Rock are all on cesspools and septic. I find that an unconscionable offense in the Planning Department’s permitting. All of those big money homes should have been put on municipal wastewater. It could’ve been done and it wasn’t.”

Couch agreed that the issues surrounding cesspools and septic tanks are “something that needs to be dealt with very strictly,” but said that municipal wastewater systems would lead to more treatment plants. He referenced a “great plan” by the Department of Environmental Management that included the installation of individual processing treatment units for one specific home, or two homes sharing one.

Don Couch

Ocean water quality testing and volunteer programs have been suspended due to the pandemic, and the candidates were asked if the state should invest in more monitoring and enforcement of water quality in Kihei.

“The answer to that is yes, an emphatic yes, and it’s not just for South Maui but also West Maui and the north shore and in the area by the treatment plant in Kahului, as well as any other area that has seen any kind of pollution,” Couch said. “It’s just something we have to bite the bullet and do. COVID-19 got rid of the volunteers, but we should be able to hire somebody, a group of people, or a scientist that can do that, anyone who is properly trained.”

The pandemic also poses a good opportunity to collect more data on water quality and the impacts of wastewater, Wildberger said. The Kihei injection well is operating only at 20 percent capacity and many of the hotels are still unoccupied.

“They are injecting almost nothing into our oceans right now,” she said. “We need that data now, and I think it’s possible to start back that testing with social distancing and masks.”

South Maui has also suffered periodically from stormwater runoff that starts Upcountry and flows downhill, flooding low-lying areas of Kihei. Wildberger expressed the need to keep gulches clear.

Alberta de Jetley

“If we have our gulches clear, we won’t have issues with flooding at elevations, for instance at Maui Meadows, which happened last year,” Wildberger said. “We can have our mauka to makai stream flow appropriately allocated. We have to keep our gulches and our streams clear in order to have our water flow.”

But even with clear gulches, the difference in elevation will cause the water to flow “very rapidly,” Couch said. An executive assistant to Mayor Michael Victorino, Couch said that the county has been talking with the federal government and the Public Works Department to find ways to slow the water down. One solution could be putting in silt basins.

“It slows it down so it can’t settle a little,” he said. “The biggest part of the problem is the velocity of the water.”

Both Couch and Wildberger supported pushing the construction of the long-delayed Kihei high school and the safe underpass for students, as well as mitigating traffic in that area.

For the upcoming school year, Wildberger suggested outdoor classrooms to combat the risk of exposure to COVID-19.

Gabe Johnson

“Our teachers are afraid to go back to the classrooms,” she said. “Our teachers should not be considered disposable assets. I get it, I know parents are ready to send their kids back to school. . . . DOE should invest in tent structures and take it outside. There is no place in the entire state where we can’t do outside classrooms.”

While Couch agreed with the potential benefits, he supported the plans for hybrid scheduling and distance learning already slated for most schools.

“Another way to help mitigate and keep the kids safe, and the teachers less exposed to as many kids all the time, is the 2-1-2 plan,” he said. “Wednesday would be the day nobody goes to the school and it gets all cleaned out.”

The virtual forum also featured three candidates running for the Lanai residency seat on the Maui County Council — Alberta de Jetley, Matthew J.K. Mano and Gabe Johnson. It is the only open seat on the council, with current Council Member Riki Hokama leaving due to term limits.

Like the House candidates, de Jetley, Mano and Johnson supported the ideas of reducing the damage associated with stormwater runoff and protecting threatened coastal areas.

Matthew Mano

“Kihei has been subject to flooding for many, many years,” de Jetley said. “So I propose cleaning out the gulches, building swills, building basins or reservoirs to hold back this water from the ocean so that we’re not polluting the ocean.”

However, she was not in favor of berms in the ocean and changing the coastline to accommodate buildings that are currently threatened by rising sea levels.

Mano said that the issue surrounding runoff can be resolved by fixing the storm drains, which he said are “not upkept correctly.”

“If there’s debris, it’ll back up. If it backs up, it’ll flood,” he said. “So, low lying areas, either we raise it and put a drainage under it or we need to put what we call on Lanai, speed bumps, high mounds, in certain areas that would redirect (the water).”

To protect shorelines and marshes, and to combat erosion, especially on North and South Kihei Roads, Johnson said that the community can focus on a “slow and intelligent” managed retreat.

“Basically, you pull your whole shoreline up and let nature take its course on the beaches,” Johnson said. “I’m not gonna say to build a seawall. That’s definitely not what you want to do in that situation. You want a slow managed retreat and when it’s time to tear down a building that’s right on the coastline, then maybe it’s time to tear it down for good, otherwise it’s going to be in the ocean.”

The candidates were also asked how they would accelerate the transition of wastewater from the Kihei injection wells to use in irrigation. Injection wells have been a major issue over the last term, as the council and administration clashed over a lawsuit related to the county’s use of the wells in West Maui.

“Something needs to be done, so why not kill two birds with one stone and take the injection wells’ grey water, and you can make a green belt around Kihei because that area is so dry and it will prevent brush fires,” said Johnson, adding that the water could also be used for farming.

De Jetley proposed creating natural lakes, ponds or reservoirs with the water, and adding more recreational spaces. She said that the community can use the grey water for ranching or combating brush fires.

“We should be able to use that water. I don’t want to see it injected into the ocean anymore,” she said.

Mano felt de Jetley’s pond proposal was “OK” but was concerned about the electricity bills associated with pumping the water to higher elevation when the time comes.

“We need to come up with a plan in the County Council to figure out how we can do irrigation lines,” said Mano, a former wastewater operator supervisor. “Not as much as possible, but slowly in increments – hook up a mile of lines and then stop – so that the taxpayers don’t have to pay that much and then the next year put another mile until we reach the end of Kihei and into the outskirts.”

KCA is planning another forum for Sept. 15. For more information, visit gokihei.org.

* Dakota Grossman can be reached at dgrossman@mauinews.com.

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