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After relief, drought returns to Maui

County only recently crawled out of worst conditions in Hawaii

A barren tree stands in a dry, dirt-caked swath of land between Kihei and Maalaea. Severe drought recently returned to this area, along with other leeward portions of Maui County, a report said. The Maui News / KEHAULANI CERIZO photos

Although Maui County enjoyed reprieve from the worst drought conditions in the state — the break was brief, recent weather reports show.

Severe drought has already descended on leeward portions of the county, and predictions show below normal rainfall may be in store for summer and fall.

Reports from the agriculture sector said pasture conditions have become “very poor” in the lower leeward sections of Maui, especially sections from Maalaea to Kihei, according to a statement Friday by Kevin Kodama, senior service hydrologist for the National Weather Service in Honolulu.

“Ranchers in southwest Molokai reported very poor forage conditions, and conditions in the rest of west Molokai were deteriorating,” he said.

Severe drought that recently returned to Maui County encompasses the southwestern portion of Molokai, the southwestern two-thirds of Kahoolawe and the lower leeward slopes of Maui from Maalaea to Kihei, Kodama said.

Brittle, dry grass blows in a field overlooking Maalaea and Kihei on Sunday. After a couple months of reprieve from some of the worst drought conditions in the state, severe and moderate drought returned to parts of Maui County, including this lower leeward slope of Maui.

Moderate drought also grew in Maui County, including the west half of Molokai, the northwestern portion of Lanai, all of Maui’s central valley, and the lower leeward Maui slopes from Kaupo to Kepuni and from Kaanapali to Ukumehame.

U.S. Drought Monitor categories start at the mild end with abnormally dry and incrementally intensify to moderate, severe, extreme and exceptional.

Kodama added that county drought committee meetings are currently in progress through mid-June to discuss impacts and mitigation actions across the various communities and sectors.

The wettest March on record since 2006 for many areas of the state helped eliminate in April severe drought for areas of Maui County. Although the rain was devastating in some places of the state, it was welcomed for sections of the county that suffered extraordinary drought, which led to a spike in axis deer deaths on Molokai, along with ranching and agricultural woes in several places.

Officials at the time had cautioned that drought conditions would likely return, though.

“We will watch overall weather patterns and be prepared for not if — but when — the next drought conditions are upon us,” County Water Supply Director Jeff Pearson told The Maui News in April.

May — the first month of the dry season, which runs through September — produced below average rainfall in many areas of the state, according to the National Weather Service.

Rainfall totals last month were below average across most of Maui County. Windward Haleakala and some of the Upcountry gauges had near average totals. In contrast, several low elevation leeward sites from Waikapu to Kihei had no measurable rainfall the entire month, according to Kodama.

Most of the gauges on Molokai and Lanai had May totals below 50 percent of average. United States Geological Survey’s Puu Kukui gauge had the highest monthly total of 18.33 inches (66 percent of average) and the highest daily total of 2.50 inches on May 13. The Pukalani and Waikapu Country Club gauges had their lowest May totals since 2010.

Most of the rainfall totals for 2021 through the end of May were near to above average across Maui County. However, a few of the leeward sites had year-to-date totals drop into below average territory due to the dry May conditions. Puu Kukui had the highest year-to-date total of 144.90 inches (89 percent of average).

Forecasts for the summer and fall show below normal rainfall, according to the NOAA Climate Prediction Center’s Long-Lead Hawaiian Islands Outlook, which was issued May 20. 

“With the exception of the Kona slopes of the Big Island, leeward areas of the state may see increasing drought conditions during the summer,” Kodama said in the statement. “This is based on the probabilities favoring below normal rainfall during the summer months.”

He added that trade wind rainfall may be enough to curb drought along windward slopes. 

Kona slopes are another exception, where summer months are part of a wet season there and typically enough to mitigate drought development for that area. 

The next long-lead outlook will be issued by the Climate Prediction Center on Thursday.

Last September, Maui County had the worst drought conditions in 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 helps provide resources to drought-impacted residents.

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

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