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County could consider higher rates for top water users

Officials want to incentivize conservation at hotels, other facilities

Sprinklers water the grass along Lipoa Parkway near the Maui Nui Golf Club in Kihei in May. Maui County Council Vice Chairwoman Keani Rawlins-Fernandez is working on a proposal that would charge higher rates for the county’s biggest water users — mostly hotels and other visitor accommodations — in hopes of incentivizing conservation. — The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

The majority of the county’s highest drinking water users are hotels and other major visitor accommodations, and officials are looking into ways to incentivize conservation by raising rates on the thirstiest customers.

About 16 of the top 20 potable water consumers during fiscal year 2020 were hotels, timeshares and condominiums used for short-term visitor accommodations — all in South and West Maui, according data on the county Board of Water Supply’s website.

Council Vice Chairwoman Keani Rawlins-Fernandez presented to the board last week a conceptual proposal to build new framework that would bring in higher revenue from the most egregious users.

The top five users during that time frame are the following, starting with the highest: Grand Wailea (172,340,000 gallons), Fairmont Kea Lani (113,320,000 gallons), Westin Kaanapali Ocean Resort Villas (81,589,000 gallons), Hotel Wailea (66,427,000 gallons) and Baldwin High School (46,023,000 gallons).

When asked where water is being used, Grand Wailea, A Waldorf Astoria Resort, responded that it has reduced water use over recent years.

The Grand Wailea’s Hibiscus Pool is shown in 2018. A Maui County Council member is considering a proposal that would charge higher rates for greater water use. In fiscal year 2020, the Grand Wailea was the top water user with 172,340,000 gallons in fiscal year 2020. — The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

“Since 2018, we have made significant strides to implement a comprehensive water conservation plan that has reduced daily water usage by more than 30 percent pre-pandemic,” J.P. Oliver, resort managing director, said in a statement. “We look forward to building on this progress and completing planned improvements to our aging water infrastructure on the property.”

The resort said it has invested more than $1 million in water-saving programs at the property and has plans to replace selected natural turf lawns with artificial turf to reduce irrigation use, improve irrigation efficiency by converting to modern systems that conserve water, continue installing low-flow plumbing fixtures in guest rooms, increase native and adapted plant species that require less water to thrive, replace aging water pipes and redesign and renovate pools and water features.

The water usage from 2019 to 2020 was about the same for some of the resorts despite months of pandemic shutdowns, suggesting that the amount of water guests use for bathing, drinking and flushing are not as significant as other hotel uses, Rawlins-Fernandez said during the meeting.

“So for landscaping, pools and water features, particularly the landscaping in the dry area of South Maui, perhaps they should consider more appropriate landscaping plants, perhaps even consider using turf instead of grass bed because it’s a dry area and it’s potable water that they’re using,” she said.

Baldwin High School Principal Keoni Wilhelm said Wednesday that the school did have some broken pipes but that one of the driving forces behind its high water use is agriculture.

“We utilize a lot of water for our agriculture in the back of the school,” Wilhelm said. “And that’s water that we normally in the past would use with our irrigation system, but we no longer have that pump system behind our gymnasium that would help us to monitor usage and not rely on so much fresh water. So I think that would be a primary reason.”

Rawlins-Fernandez said Wednesday she is gathering more information and working closely with the Maui County Board of Water Supply and other Hawaii counties before introducing a formal proposal to the council that would “appropriately balance conservation, water use equity and sufficient revenue generation to fund maintenance and expansion.”

The county’s Department of Water Supply is self-funded and water rates are its source of revenue, which goes toward sustaining the department and capital improvement projects.

Maui County has two categories for monthly charges: single-family and general water consumers. Single-family has four tiers for rates per 1,000 gallons: zero to 5,000 at $2.05; 5,001 to 15,000 at $3.90; 15,001 to 35,000 at $5.85; and greater than 35,001 at $6.55.

General water consumers have three tiers for rates per 1,000 gallons: zero to 5,000 gallons at $2.05; 5,001 to 15,000 at $3.90; and more than 15,001 at $5.85.

In fiscal year 2020, revenue for single-family customers was about $29 million and general use customers was a little over $33 million.

Rawlins-Fernandez highlighted that the first three tiers are the same in single family and all other general water consumers, which include the most egregious users, including hotels, resorts and timeshares.

“When I first got into office, I … looked at the rates and saw that single-family had a tier four but the other general users didn’t, and I didn’t think it was fair,” she said.

Rawlins-Fernandez’s conceptual proposal for Maui thus far includes single-family, multiunit and nonresidential frameworks.

Single-family residential would be water service charges to single-family and duplex residences with real property tax classifications that have homeowner exemptions, long-term rental exemptions or are classified as commercialized residential.

Multiunit residential would be water service charges to multiunit residential, meaning multiunit residences, including apartments, condos and townhouses, with real property tax classifications that have a homeowner or long-term rental exemption or are classified as commercialized residential.

Nonresidential would be any property not used for residential or agricultural purposes, which includes property tax classifications without a homeowner exemption or long-term rental exemption or not classified as commercialized residential.

Meanwhile, the water board is encouraging the county Department of Environmental Management to get reclaimed water to the thirstier areas for irrigation. Not only would that be a more efficient use of reclaimed water but it would alleviate the need for controversial injection wells, board Chairman Dean Frampton said.

“The more that we as a county can support landscaping uses, which might be some of these big, egregious users, at least some of the hotels, then maybe it’s not so much of a penalty so much as it is an incentive to give them,” Frampton said during the meeting.

“If we can give them the necessary infrastructure, and they can help us alleviate the wastewater needs that we have, and that is properly disposing of the wastewater,” then it’s a win-win outcome, he said.

He added that coordination needs to be done with hotels to determine how much they could use for irrigation.

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

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