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Maui’s Antiquated Water & Waste Systems Don’t Meet Today’s Needs

DLNR officials say there is not enough funding to update water resource management infrastructure. “We are severely under-budgeted.”

May 27, 2014
Katherine Kama‘ema‘e Smith - Contributing Writer , Maui Weekly

At the Kihei Community Association (KCA) meeting on Tuesday, May 20, state Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) Deputy Director William M. Tam and state Water Resource Management Commissioner Jonathan Starr advised interested Maui residents about critical problems with Hawai'i's 150-year-old water and sewer-waste treatment infrastructure. The solutions, they said, cannot be undertaken by DLNR without added funding.

"To thrive and survive, we have to do a better job of planning all kinds of water use--and stop managing potable and non-potable water resources as if they are not connected," said Starr. "All types of water are part of the whole system."

Strategies used for plantations are also not meeting today's needs, Starr added.

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State Department of Land and Natural Resources Deputy Director William M. Tam says the department is severely underfunded.

Stream diversions and deep wells once created for small, centralized settlements slowly expanded ditches and pipes to service distant population centers. Now, a network of sewers carries waste back to large central waste treatment facilities that struggle to meet demand, risking spills in the wetter tourist season, and in the dry season, producing barely enough treated non-potable water to satisfy customers, Starr said.

The DLNR is charged with managing growing demand for water and waste treatment, limited sustainable yields from deep wells, decreasing fresh water lens density, and limited wastewater treatment capacity, Starr said. In addition, the department is concerned about protecting reefs from storm run-off, retaining run-off to charge aquifers, and providing water and waste treatment close to population centers and agricultural lands, where it is needed.

Maui County community-based projects like the West Maui Ridge to Reef Initiative to mitigate storm run-off, and Dr. Art Medeiros' Auwahi native forest reclamation project to add forest drip to ground water are examples of what Tam and Starr would like to see on all islands.

They also said our well systems need renovation.

"Drawing all your fresh water out of one deep well depletes the fresh water lens at that spot," said Tam. "It's better to draw from the top of the lens from multiple shallow wells spaced out over a broad area."

Another problem with deep wells and waste treatment is that water is heavy and expensive to transport, they said.

"O'ahu's central aquifer in the Pearl Harbor area pumps 144 million gallons per day (mgd) of potable water daily and a central wastewater treatment plant returns 1 mgd of treated water to ejection wells that eventually release the water out to the ocean," said Tam. "Cycling well water to the user and back to the treatment plant uses nearly $500,000 of electricity annually. It doesn't make economic sense to pump water long distances."

Since the early 1980s, hydrologists and planners have recommended development of multiple fresh water resources--catchment, reservoirs and shallow wells, for nearby users. Additionally, the modern concept of waste management is to build multiple, small wastewater treatment plants right where people need non-potable water for irrigation.

"Multiple small waste facilities can produce a reliable supply of U.S. Department of Health R-1 [Class 1 recycled] non-potable water where you need it for multiple uses like growing plants or food crops--and it replenishes the aquifer," said Tam.

When asked if the County of Maui Department of Water Supply has the resources to pursue these time-tested solutions, Tam replied, "No. "We are severely under-budgeted."

Tam explained that the DLNR receives only one percent of the state budget, and only a portion of that goes to water resource management. The rest must support land and ocean resources: forests and wetlands, small boat harbors, reefs and cultural resources.

All heads turned to state Sen. Roz Baker, who was seated in the audience. "I agree with him," she said. "DLNR is always underfunded. More people have to advocate for change so that more money goes to this area."

Maui County Department of Water Supply Director Dave Taylor was also in attendance. He said his department can effect changes, so long as the public understands the concept of keeping water management close to home.

"My department lobbied to add a condition to the zoning for the Honua'ula (formerly Wailea 670) plan, which requires the developer build local waste treatment, instead of hooking into county sewers designed to serve Kihei," Taylor said.

This condition keeps waste treatment and the non-potable water it produces in the Wailea community.

Earlier in the evening, Tam discussed the decades of work that has provided a legal base for state and county management of a public water supply, like putting surface water back into streams, the Waiholi Ditch restoration, the Na Wai 'Eha decision and the subsequent successful challenge to State Water Resource Management Commission recommendations for kuleana rights and stream flow.

Starr recommended that interested persons should read "Water and the Law in Hawai'i," a book by Lawrence H. Mike (UH Press.)

Tam also said Maui's progress on water issues and preservation of Hawai'i's unique environment was a consideration for the prestigious International Union for Conservation of Nature, when they selected Hawai'i for their 2016 World Conservation Congress. This forum will bring over 8,000 attendees to Hawai'i.

Questions from the KCA audience kept a lively discussion going until the Kihei Charter School cleaning staff came in to prepare the auditorium for the next day. President Mike Moran thanked everyone for coming and for supporting the Maui Food Bank.

The June 17 meeting will have updates on Kihei issues from candidates running in summer primaries.

The Kihei Charter School STEM Middle School is located at 41 East Lipoa St., Ste. 29, in Kihei.

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