WAILUKU - The Maui County Council Water Resources Committee advanced a bill that authorizes the mayor and the director of the Department of Water Supply to declare "water shortages" and to impose higher rates for Maui County residents.
The rate structure to kick in during water shortages - not only during droughts - will be established in a separate ordinance during the council's next budget cycle, according to Councilman Mike White's office. White is the chairman of the council's Budget and Finance Committee.
The seven members on the Water Resources Committee on Wednesday voted unanimously in favor of the bill that would amend the Maui County Code to give the water director, with the approval of the mayor, the power to declare a water shortage. The amendment would expand the director's declaration to encompass mechanical malfunction and human error as well as droughts and other acts of nature.
The bill also establishes two stages of severity within the water shortage declaration that would trigger increased rates with the goal of reducing consumption.
Warren Watanabe, executive director of the Maui County Farm Bureau, speaking on behalf of the organization's commercial farmers and ranchers, said that the current proposals will jeopardize their businesses.
"The proposed restrictions and increased costs literally cut our farmers and ranchers at their knees when they are already struggling," he said. "This does not seem to support the state and county's statements to increase our level of self-sufficiency."
The organization is not asking to be exempt from water-use restrictions, said Watanabe, but asks to be exempt from the punitive water shortage rate hikes and penalties.
"We recognize the various water needs of the community, and we need to work together to find a resolution to this issue, but it should not be at the detriment of existing users," he said. "We are willing to work with (the committee) to develop policies and actions that will expand agriculture as a key contributor to the economy."
Councilman Michael Victorino, chairman of the committee, thanked Watanabe and the bureau for their cooperation but said water shortage situations need to be dealt with in a communitywide approach.
"All of us feel that ranching and farming are integral parts of our society, and we need to preserve and protect it," he said. "However, you know like everything else, we got to come to some real . . . logical and fair conclusions, so that all are taken care of when we have these water shortages."
Dave Taylor, director of the water department, told council members that the only practical way to encourage customers to conserve water was through the pocketbook rather than conducting "water police actions."
"We're really trying to deal with . . . our customers wholesale," he said. "We have 35,000 individual (water) meters. They're scattered so far and wide. We don't think it's realistic that we can adequately enforce individual measures that can make people change their behavior."
While the measure before the committee Wednesday enables the higher water shortage rates, Taylor noted that the rates themselves will be decided upon during the next budget cycle. He pointed out that the department's proposals call for different rates for agricultural and general water users with agricultural users paying significantly lower rates.
The triggers for the higher rates are broken down into two stages in the bill.
A "Stage 1" water shortage is activated if the director anticipates water demand in an area to exceed available water supply by up to 20 percent.
A "Stage 2" water shortage is called if the director determines projected demand will exceed 20 percent of available water.
Each stage has four tiers with 5,000-gallon-a-month increments with prices varying depending on the category of users. Taylor said agricultural users of more than 15,000 gallons a month would pay significantly less than general water users who use the same amount.
The bill originated from a water department analysis of the Upcountry system that often has residents under voluntary cutbacks due to drought. However, department officials began to realize that they had no plan to deal with severe short-term water shortages, from drought to mechanical breakdowns, throughout the county.
"It was during that (analysis) we realized we needed a plan to deal with those types of shortages, in all areas," Taylor said. "Although this bill came out of an analysis of the Upcountry system, it is not just for Upcountry. It's needed everywhere."
Water use could exceed supply anywhere in the county due to nature, human error and mechanical problems.
"The purpose of this bill is to recognize there will be times - due to a number of factors - we cannot meet demand for short periods of time and to enable some activities that will help curtail that demand," he said.
The bill now moves to the full council.
* Chris Sugidono can be reached at email@example.com.