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Maui water director: Without conservation by Upcountry customers, reserve supply could run out in 3 weeks

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Today, Upcountry system customers moved into a Stage 2 water shortage, with the most dire Stage 3 level likely to be implemented “soon” with reserves running low and severe drought conditions expected to continue, said John Stufflebean, Maui County’s director of Water Supply.

Here’s the situation: The water system that serves 30,000 customers now is using 2 million gallons more per day than is supplied by its two sources: rain and wells.

The system’s reservoirs — which collect and hold up to 130 million gallons of water to be used during the dry season — have dropped to only 42 million gallons. So if nothing changes, that reserve supply would be gone in 21 days.

“It’s actually less than that because you can’t go down to totally empty,” Stufflebean said. “We’re a matter of weeks away from having not enough water to meet the demand.”

This current water shortage was not caused by water being used to fight the Kula and Olinda fires in August.

Stufflebean said: “At the end of September, the reservoirs were as full as they’ve been for the last few years; we were in good shape. But the system is very fragile Upcountry. You can go very quickly from everything is okay to we have a problem.”


And that is what has happened — again.

The system — which serves customers in Makawao, Upper and Lower Kula, Haʻikū, Pukalani, Kokomo, Kaupakalua, Ulumalu, Ulupalakua and Kanaio — relies primarily on rainfall to meet the current demand of about 8 million gallons per day.

Eighty percent of the supply comes from East Maui streams that flow through three ditches that were built long ago. Two of the three ditches have gone completely dry: the upper one that feeds the Olinda treatment plant and the middle one that feeds the Piʻiholo plant. Both are fed by rainfall in Waikamoi Forest.

The third ditch (Wailoa) that feeds the Kamole Weir plant is still running, but at low levels. Typically, 15 million gallons of day runs by the plant that has a capacity to treat 5 million gallons a day. On Monday, only 6 million gallons flowed past the plant, according to the county.

And, all the water can’t be taken from the streams, because some is also needed to be left for the ecosystem to function.


Stufflebean said longterm solutions to the chronic problem have been underfunded for decades, but the county is currently working on a project to see if it is possible to implement a temporary connection of the Upcountry system to the Central Maui system, which services South Maui and is supplied by groundwater from the ʻĪao Aquifer under the West Maui Mountains.

The county also is investigating longterm solutions of a permanent connection between the systems and desalinization of ocean water.

But now it is not possible to take water from the Central Maui system to help supply the Upcountry system.

And, even the temporary solution will take time. The county said Upcountry system customers must conserve to prevent the water from running out.

“The main message to people is not to use water outdoors,” Stufflebean said.


Of the current demand of 8 million gallons per day, about 5 million of it is for outdoor use, he said.

Per County Code during declared water shortages, customers are mandated to stop using water for irrigation, watering lawns, washing vehicles or other nonessential activities. Also, the use of temporary meters for construction sites is prohibited.

Despite the added consequences of fines, there was little water conservation during Stage 1 of the water shortage that was implemented on Oct. 26. Water usage remained steady, Stufflebean said.

During Stages 2 and 3 of water shortages, rate hikes can occur for any usage over the average indoor use. Stufflebean said rate hikes are now in the works and likely to be implemented soon.

A typical household of three people uses 100 gallons of water per person per day indoors. Now, Upcountry system customers are using about 270 gallons per day, although this does include agriculture use.

Stufflebean said agriculture use is about 1 million gallons per day, which is about 12.5% of the water used in the system.

He added that the County Code does not require farmers and other users for agriculture to cut water usage during shortages, but “we have asked farmers to cut back as much as possible.”

The county said it is doing what it now can to add to the supply through what it can control: the wells. Its main Upcountry well is pumping to capacity.

The county is using a second well, which by County Code can only be used in times of water shortages due to concerns over possible contaminants. The county also is actively working to get a third well operational, which also can only be used in a declared shortage. But both of those wells produce only about 750,000 gallons per day.

The main way to increase supply to the system is by rain. There have been a lot of days recently with little to no clouds over large parts of Haleakalā.

“Clear is bad,” Snufflebean said. “And the projections are it won’t rain very much this year.”

The National Weather Service’s recently issued outlook for the wet season for Hawaiʻi that runs October through April 2024 said the current El Niño will continue, bringing dryer and warmer weather than usual.

The outlook said: “The climate model consensus favors large scale below average rainfall through the entire wet season.” It also said: “Drought expected to continue into the 2024 dry season.”

So for now, conservation is greatly needed.

“Actually,” Stufflebean said. “The outdoor watering needs to stop until it rains, frankly.”

Editor’s Note: The county has clarified that agriculture use is about 1 million gallons per day.


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