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March rain erases remaining drought for Maui County

Extreme conditions over months sparked disaster declaration

Traffic on South Kihei Road splashes through a puddle near the Kihei Youth Center on March 13. The wettest March on record since 2006 for many areas of the state helped eliminate remaining severe drought areas for Maui County, according to a recent National Weather Service announcement. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photos

The wettest March on record since 2006 for many areas of the state helped eliminate remaining severe drought areas for Maui County, according to the National Weather Service.

Last month, the county received a federal disaster declaration for the worst drought in the state that over months impacted farmers and ranchers and led to a spike in axis deer deaths on Molokai.

March was the wettest on record since 2006 for many areas of the state, Kevin Kodama, senior service hydrologist for the National Weather Service in Honolulu, said in a statement Thursday. The March 2006 totals — “remembered locally as the so-called ’40 Days of Rain’ “ — set the bar so high that monthly rainfall records were only broken at a couple of locations this year.

Rainfall totals across Maui — all of which were above average — erased severe drought over southwest Molokai and moderate drought over west-central Molokai and Central Maui. U.S. Drought Monitor categories start at the mild end with abnormally dry and incrementally intensify to moderate, severe, extreme and exceptional.

County Water Supply Director Jeff Pearson said Monday that the announcement is welcome news but cautioned that drought will inevitably return.

Maui County Public Works crew member Bryce Hanada uses a shovel to clear debris from a clogged drain along Kaonoulu Street in Kihei on March 13.

“Of course it is good news to hear of reduced drought for Maui County,” he said. “(Department of Water Supply) has full or near full reservoirs and with the recent rains, water use for irrigation is down.”

Pearson said drought is always a concern for the department, since it relies on surface water from West Maui and Upcountry.

“We will watch overall weather patterns and be prepared for not if — but when — the next drought conditions are upon us,” he said.

The U.S. Geological Survey rain gauge at West Wailuaiki Stream had the highest monthly total of 50.47 inches (174 percent of its monthly average) and the highest daily total of 12.28 inches on March 18, according to Kodama.

The Haiku gauge (20.94 inches, 355 percent of average) posted its highest March rainfall total on record.

Elsewhere in the county, Pukalani and Waikapu Country Club had their highest March totals since 2004. Makapulapai hit its highest since 2005. Kaunakakai Mauka, Lahainaluna, Mahinahina and Molokai Airport gauges recorded their highest totals since 2006.

Although Kahului Airport’s 9.78 inches were “impressive” and 399 percent of average, this still fell short of the record March total of 10.90 inches set in 1967, Kodama said.

Maui County year-to-date rainfall totals ending March 31 were near or above average.

The USGS Puu Kukui gauge had the highest year-to-date total of 104.86 inches, which is 110 percent of its average.

March’s rainfall wasn’t without other impacts, though.

Sudden downpours pummeled the state in early March, sparking devastating flooding on major islands. On Maui, homes were destroyed, roads inundated and beaches and parks shut down.

By mid-month, though, the county was seeing some relief in hard-hit drought areas.

Kodama said last September that Maui County had the “worst drought conditions across the state,” with portions in the exceptional category.

By January, Gov. David Ige declared the county a disaster area as Molokai’s exceptional drought conditions impacted ranchers and farmers, and led to a spike in axis deer deaths.

On March 9, the federal government approved the designation, which will provide resources to drought-impacted residents.

Looking ahead, Kodama pointed to “near- to below-normal rainfall” that’s predicted for the rest of spring and for this summer, with above-average temperatures forecast for the west half of the state, according to the Long-Lead Hawaiian Islands Outlook issued March 18 by the The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Climate Prediction Center.

“With the exception of the Kona slopes of the Big Island, leeward areas of the state may slip back into drought conditions at some point over the next several months,” Kodama said. “Trade wind rainfall may be enough to prevent drought development along the windward slopes.”

The summer months are part of the wet season on the Kona slopes, which should be sufficient to mitigate drought development in this area.

Kodama said the weather service will not release any more drought updates until severe conditions return to the state.

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

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