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Progress on water policy in Maui County

Council's 3 Minutes

Shortly after joining the council, I noticed unfairness in the structure of our county’s potable water rates.

A hotel or resort using over 35,000 gallons of water was charged a lower rate than a single-family dwelling using the same amount. This disparity was based on a technical defect in the rate structure: Single-family dwellings had four tiers while the other category of all other general users each had only three. Another stark disparity is in water usage: one resort uses more water than 1,872 single-family dwellings use in one day, at an average of 500,000 gallons per day.

Hotels and resorts are used by visitors for the profit of offshore investors. Single-family dwellings are where our local residents raise their families.

I began studying ways to fix the structure. Last year, I presented my initial ideas to the Board of Water Supply, with the intention of working with them to balance important policy goals — conservation and revenue generation — in addition to equity in rates.

After receiving feedback from the board and discussions with the Department of Water Supply, I presented an updated proposal earlier this year. I’m grateful to the board for inviting me to present and having a lively discussion, as documented in minutes of the Feb. 17 Board of Water Supply, available online: tinyurl.com/BWSminutes.

My proposal would create a separate category for hotel and resort, similar to that of Kapalua Water Company, a private water system, that has a separate category for hotels.

One Board of Water Supply member acknowledged that “it seems like the resorts are getting preferential treatment.” I agreed, adding that “it doesn’t seem like the egregious users will willingly conserve more.” A new, more thoughtful rate structure can use financial incentives to “motivate them to use less.”

Our current structure includes two categories — “single-family” and “all other general users,” which includes multi-family, commercial and hotel and resort. By creating a new hotel category, we would promote conservation by the most egregious water users and, finally, begin to address the inequity in water rates.

While we in county government are working on updating the water-rate structure to benefit all residents, the state Commission on Water Resource Management has issued landmark decisions for those on Molokai and in Lahaina.

First, on April 19, in response to the urging of our Molokai community, the water commission established a median flow for five streams on Molokai: the East Kawela, East Kawela Tributary, West Kawela, Lualohe and Waikolu Streams. For more than a century, the streams were almost fully diverted and often ran dry.

The water commission expects these restored stream flows will have dramatic benefits for groundwater recharge and nearshore ecosystems, as well as restoring coastal spring flows critical for limu growth.

Second, in an action advocated for by Council Member Tamara Paltin and the West Maui community, the water commission unanimously agreed to designate the entire Lahaina Aquifer Sector Area as both a Surface Water and Ground Water Management Area. This designation gives the water commission tools to identify uses, evaluate impacts and waste, address public trust priorities and balance needs, implement alternatives and plan for drought conditions, which of course are occurring more regularly due to climate change.

Both milestone decisions are positive steps toward protecting water resources and ensuring that water remains accessible to the people of Maui County.

Meanwhile, Council Member Shane Sinenci’s trailblazing charter amendment proposal forming water authorities to obtain and manage water systems in East Maui, and potentially beyond, has been engaged in committee deliberations crossing over two standing committees. The council must approve proposed charter amendments by this month to ensure ballot questions can be placed on the ballot for the Nov. 8 election.

I support my colleagues’ and communities’ diligence and boldness to ensure all levels of government are fulfilling their constitutional — and moral — responsibility to water as a public trust.

* Keani N.W. Rawlins-Fernandez is vice chairperson of the Maui County Council and chairs the Budget, Finance and Economic Development Committee. She holds the council seat for the Molokai residency area. “Council’s 3 Minutes” is a column to explain the latest news on county legislative matters. Go to mauicounty.us for more information.

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