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Upcountry water shortage ends, but drought remains

County says recent rainfall has helped refill reservoirs

Dry conditions in Kula extend across the central valley in July, when the county issued a Stage 1 water shortage declaration for Upcountry. After nearly four months, the county declared the shortage over, though drought persists for many parts of the island. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photos

A nearly four-month-long water shortage declaration for Upcountry came to an end due to recent rainfall, though many areas across Maui County are still experiencing severe drought and concerns over enforcement of water restrictions remain.

Since July, residents of areas living in Makawao, Kula, Haiku, Pukalani, Kokomo, Kaupakalua, Ulumalu, Keokea, Ulupalakua and Kanaio have been asked to conserve water and reduce nonessential uses under a Stage 1 water shortage declaration. However, windward mauka showers this month have been filling reservoirs back up “slowly, but steadily,” prompting the county Department of Water Supply to announce the end to the shortage effective Friday.

“They’re near capacity now,” Water Supply Director Jeff Pearson said Wednesday night during a Kula Community Association meeting.

As reservoir levels declined and sources for water looked bleak Upcountry, mandatory water restrictions and notices were issued on nonessential water use like irrigation, watering lawns and washing vehicles.

Violators are supposedly subject to penalties, which may include a $500 fine for each violation and removal of a water meter for subsequent violations; however, the lack of enforcement has prompted questions among residents.

A dwindling Upcountry reservoir along Kula Highway is filled with algae in July. Maui County Water Supply Director Jeff Pearson said on Wednesday that recent rainfall has brought Upcountry reservoirs back to near capacity.

“During the drought situations, several people have asked to what degree has the department actually cited people for using water and what kind of enforcement capabilities do you have?” Kula Community Association president Dick Mayer asked during the meeting last week.

Pearson said that the department has not cited anyone.

“What we’ve been trying to do is go on a case-by-case basis — we get reports of misuse, we contact the person, we’ll contact them again, we’ll put door hangers on their door to let them if we can’t get ahold of them and we try again,” Pearson said. “Enforcement is always a magic word and it’s always difficult. So, no, to answer your question, we don’t enforce to the greatest degree and that’s one of the weaknesses out there.”

By declaring these water shortages, the department is “asking” customers to conserve while officials are “doing our best to provide water,” Pearson said.

With Maui County struggling with one of the worst ongoing drought crises in over a decade, forecasts are finally calling for some rain events into the winter months, according to the department and the National Weather Service.

Long-range forecasts for surface sea temperatures show trends for normal to slightly below-normal surface sea temperatures, which suggests La Nina conditions tending towards higher rainfalls.

Still, the water department will continue to watch supply and demand, and the weather forecast, to determine if a Stage 1 water shortage declaration needs to be issued again.

Because Upcountry water supply is mostly reliant on the weather, Pearson added that there may always be some level of conservation needed, which is the “biggest and the easiest and the cheapest way to reduce water use Upcountry” and reduce shortages.

Maui County Council Member Yuki Sugimura, who holds the Upcountry residency seat and was happy on Wednesday to hear that the water shortage was coming to an end, said that there has already been “water requests that have come across my desk and it will be discussed” for possible inclusion in the fiscal year 2023 budget.

The plan is to have all of the community’s requests and suggestions for upcoming budget items discussed during a Kula Community Association meeting, and then presented to Sugimura and the mayor.

The U.S. Drought Monitor, which is updated each Thursday to show the location and intensity of drought, shows that the majority of the Upcountry locations are experiencing moderate to extreme drought.

During the meeting on Wednesday, Pearson explained that between the wells and reservoirs that make up the Upcountry system, they have a production capacity of about 16.8 million gallons of water per day.

Surface water provides about 70 percent of the water source for the Upcountry area.

“As we know, when we use surface water as the supply, which depends largely on weather, then we’re going to have issues when the weather is dry and we’re going to have less water that feeds these surface water treatment plants,” he said. “The source is there when the weather treats us well.”

Growth and demand for water in those areas is slowly, but surely growing, but the ability for the department to meet the demands remains steady, Pearson said.

There are still about 1,000 applicants on the list for water meters, with the department offering meters to about 80 customers a year. Out of those that are offered meters or water sources, only about half of the applicants actually accept.

“One of the main reasons that only half accept is because the requirements for them to provide service to their lots, usually is a requirement that falls on the fire flow protection side,” Pearson said. “We have to meet fire flow requirements for these people that are requesting water, and sometimes that takes a lot of effort and cost for the applicant to meet that.”

In case the demand increases beyond supply, there is a backup well in Pookela and then the Hamakuapoko wells are utilized in drought situations — each can produce about 1.3 mgd if needed.

The department is also going to propose that the Hamaku-apoko wells can be used year-round, not just during a drought.

“If those wells can be opened for normal use, not just during low periods, then it could help the Upcountry system,” he said.

Structural improvements are also being made to the Piiholo treatment facility to hold a larger volume of water than in the past, Pearson said.

In fiscal year 2023, he’s also going to kickstart an economic evaluation on the cost for pumping water versus collecting surface water via reservoir. Surface water is usually lower cost, depending on the elevation.

“The solutions are not also that cut and dry,” he said. “Through these water shortage periods, I haven’t gotten any calls that they don’t have water coming out of their tap, so we’re doing our best to provide, not just water coming out of their tap, but quality water. … I think you can get pretty good quality of water Upcountry and you have pretty reliable water coming out of Upcountry, so it’s not as dire as some people spell it out.”

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

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