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Bill would extend exemption for farmers during drought

Department of Water Supply is concerned this would take resources from other essential needs

Sprinklers irrigate a field in the Kula Agricultural Park in 2020. When a water shortage is declared, agricultural water users are granted an exemption from restrictions for the first 90 days. A Maui County Council committee is considering a bill that would extend the exemption to 180 days, a measure that farmers say will help them keep planting crops but that the county Department of Water Supply worries will drain resources from other essential needs during drought. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Whenever a drought is declared Upcountry, Bobbie Patnode crosses her fingers that the rains will come.

“If they don’t come and I cannot water, I cannot harvest. I cannot grow anything,” said Patnode, whose Patnode Family Farm grows vegetables in Kula. “And you know ranchers have an even bigger problem. They can’t stop watering the livestock. If a rancher has to cut back because of drought and slaughter, it takes years to get back to where they were before.”

With Maui County facing some of the worst drought conditions in the state in recent years, prompting water shortages Upcountry, emergency declarations by the state and an influx of axis deer into residential and agricultural areas, county officials are searching for ways to ease the burden on local farmers and ranchers.

Currently agricultural operations do get a break when a water shortage is declared — the Maui County Code exempts them from following water restrictions or mandates for the first 90 days “after publication in a newspaper of general circulation in the county.”

Maui County Council Member Shane Sinenci, who chairs the Agriculture and Public Trust Committee, is now proposing a bill that would extend the exemption to 180 days after which they’d be subject to the same restrictions as other residents.

It’s a measure that farmers like Patnode say would help them keep planting crops, but that the county Department of Water Supply fears will drain crucial resources needed to supply essential needs during drought.

“The proposal was prompted by concerns that while water conservation during shortages is crucial, we should also make every effort to ensure water is available for farming, especially ranching, where water is needed for animals that cannot be cut back without dire consequences,” Sinenci said during a committee meeting on Tuesday.

Sinenci said he introduced the bill at the request of the county’s Ag Working Group, which explained that with the current 90-day exemption, farmers are forced to forego future crop planting and restart operations once restrictions are lifted, which “takes considerable time,” Sinenci said. Cattle, goats and other animals also can’t reduce their drinking water intake.

Patnode, who’s also a member of the Ag Working Group and the Maui County Farm Bureau board, said while 90 days may sound like enough, “this is really about giving farmers some security in being able to continue planting and also to help with Maui’s food security for our community.”

“Regular people can stop washing cars and things like that, stop watering their lawn,” Patnode told the committee. “But me as a farmer, I cannot do that. I need to keep planting.”

Patnode grows onions, daikon, beets and other vegetables in 21 separate gardens. Most of the crops take 60 to 70 days to mature, and most of her products can be turned around in about three months, she said.

“Another 90 days gives me enough time to turn around another crop, which, you can do the math — it’s 25 percent of my income for the year,” Patnode said.

Farmers only make up a fraction of the county’s total water usage, and not just anybody can get the water shortage exemption. Farmers have to go through a rigorous vetting process yearly to prove to the county that they’re actually farming, providing tax documents, crop and irrigation plans and projected water usage, Patnode pointed out.

Department of Water Supply Director Helene Kau confirmed that while agricultural water consumption made up 7.8 percent of all water consumption billed in 2021, it’s a different story Upcountry, where agricultural operations account for 84 percent of the use in that area.

“My concern is that in times of extreme drought, the extension to 180 days will mean that I will not have sufficient water for existing residential users and I won’t have enough water for fire protection,” Kau told the committee. “It’s going to be extremely difficult for us to comply with the extension.”

The 90-day exemption for agricultural users is already hard on the county, Kau said. By the time a Stage 1 water shortage is declared, it means demand is exceeding supply by at least 15 percent.

“As it is, after we declare Stage 1, the farmers have 90 days, while the rest of the residential users are requested to begin conserving immediately,” Kau said. “The buffer’s already built into the 90 days. This legislation would merely extend it to 180 days.”

Council Member Kelly Takaya King, co-founder of Pacific Biodiesel that grows sunflowers in Central Maui, said she empathizes with Patnode.

“Because you know, we’re in farming too, and so I know how important water is, and I know how important it is to plan your crop out ahead of time,” King said. “We’ve had such spotty rainwaters lately in the last several years that certain areas, you can’t count on rain coming. So you know, I just wish there was some sort of a compromise we could make.”

Kau told council members she didn’t have a suggested compromise at the moment as the department faces extreme drought.

“I don’t have additional source available right now. I’m faced with historical extreme droughts right now. So you know, it’s just a very unfortunate combination of circumstances,” Kau said.

And, while some of the recent droughts have not lasted long, “they’re occurring more frequently,” she noted.

Council Member Tamara Paltin said while she didn’t support Kau’s confirmation as director earlier this month, “in what she’s saying right now, I give her my full support.”

“If she’s saying it can’t be done, I’m going to listen to her, what she says, because we need to give her what she needs to do the job,” Paltin said.

She suggested that the county talk to the Department of Environmental Management about sending recycled wastewater to ranchers Upcountry and also discuss with farmers and ranchers about what they’re doing in drought. Paltin, who holds the West Maui residency seat, said that some farmers in her area have had to invest in water storage in the face of cutbacks, state-imposed stream flow standards and lower rainfall.

“I don’t believe this type of climate change impacts is going to go away, and so we need to address it from all angles,” Paltin said.

The committee deferred the bill as it planned to get more details from the Department of Water Supply on the costs of sending well water Upcountry, drought restrictions on golf courses and other information.

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.

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