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County: Cutback for water not tied to hotels

Residents express concerns of visitor use amid Upcountry drought conditions

JEFF PEARSON – Water director for county

Maui County’s top water official on Thursday clarified muddled claims that the recent Upcountry water shortage with mandatory cutbacks were related to water use from overtourism and thirsty hotels.

“This isn’t my words but I love what was spoken: If there were zero tourists on the island, we’d still have a Stage 1 water shortage Upcountry,” Water Director Jeff Pearson said during the county’s Board of Water Supply regular meeting. “Tourism is tourism — and you’re going to have your emotional feelings whatever way you want — but that has no issue with what we’re dealing with Upcountry.”

Pearson explained that systems supplying hotels with county water are not physically connected to the one that gets water to Upcountry residents.

Central Maui’s water system, which supplies water to South Maui hotels, relies mostly on groundwater, which fluctuates less with rainfall than surface water. West Maui’s system gets water to area users. And although it has some wells, the Upcountry system relies mostly on surface water. When it stops raining, streamflow stops too.

“The systems are physically separated,” Pearson said. “They are definitely different systems.”

Dry condition in Kula extend across the central valley into the West Maui mountains on Thursday. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Upcountry’s Makawao, Upper and Lower Kula, Haiku, Pukalani, Kokomo, Kaupakalua, Ulumalu, Ulupalakua and Kanaio areas have long faced drought conditions.

This year, the county announced a Stage 1 water shortage declaration that went into effect July 2, prohibiting Upcountry consumers from using water for nonessential activities such as irrigation, watering lawns and washing vehicles. Officials also said failure to comply may result in a $500 fine for each violation and removal of a water meter for subsequent violations.

The Stage 1 shortage is declared when anticipated water demand in an area is projected to exceed available water supply by 1 to 15 percent.

Heavy rainfall in March helped mitigate some of the drought in Maui County, but the onset of summer brought back the dry conditions.

On July 9, the National Weather Service said severe drought was expanding in Maui County and on Hawaii island. A Kaupo rancher had to reduce his cattle and goat herd. Upcountry farmers reported an increase in axis deer encroaching due to poor forage conditions elsewhere. Molokai ranchers on the west end had to provide supplemental feed to their herds.

A dwindling Upcountry reservoir along Kula Highway is filled with algae Thursday. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

With below-normal rainfall expected through the summer and fall, the weather service predicted that leeward areas of the state would see increasing drought conditions, with trade wind rainfall potentially insufficient to quench drought along windward slopes of Maui and Hawaii island.

Upcountry residents have grown accustomed to and tired of the recurring drought restrictions. Dennis Fitzpatrick of Makawao said in a recent letter to the editor that it “seems to be a near annual thing for 40 years” that county officials always say they plan to fix.

“The political will to give all Upcountry the same water rights as other areas is not there,” Fitzpatrick wrote. “Money talks and the beaches and such draw people and money. It is amazing our county can’t guarantee our Upcountry residents the same they give all others.”

Fitzpatrick added that “we all need to restrict when there is drought.”

“If all areas were asked to restrict as often as Upcountry, I can guarantee our residents would demand this be fixed,” Fitzpatrick wrote.

Others have also complained of hotels and tourism sucking up Maui County’s water resources amid an unanticipated rebound in tourism that is approaching record highs.

“Stop coming to Hawaii,” former South Maui Rep. Kaniela Ing tweeted earlier this month. “They are treating us like second class citizens, literally cutting off our water to feed over-tourism.”

A television news media story on the issue featuring Ing and a former UFC fighter muddied the issue, according to some Board of Water Supply officials, who heard testimony Thursday from residents frustrated with the water restrictions.

“We got resorts in Wailea, Kaanapali that is using water to fill their pool yet we’re going to ask our local residents to restrict water,” testified Travis Polido, Waikapu Community Association president, during the board meeting Thursday. “Let the record show that it’s not right.”

Board Vice Chairwoman Nalani Kaninau asked the department about the fine issue and whether people were punished in the past.

“It’s not like cops are going up and down the street,” she said.

Pearson replied that fines have always been built into county code but that the department isn’t set up to fine unless it was an “egregious use.”

“We sure as heck do not want to fine people,” he said.

Board member Norm Franco suggested the Water Department set aside funding for public relations efforts to help inform the community about water sources, usage and other educational outreach.

Overall, Pearson said it looks like demand has voluntarily been reduced Upcountry.

“I’d like to think that the customer, the consumers, see it –they realize that most consumers have been through this before, unfortunately,” he said. “So they know that it’s not just a bunch of bull, that it’s real and they see it. And I appreciate the efforts that our customers are making to conserve water. And I think it shows.”

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

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