Interconnection of Molokai’s Water Systems Proposed
By Catherine Cluett
If there is one problem all Molokai residents agree on, it is water. Once an island of many streams and clear wells, Molokai has become a place where large-scale agriculture competes with Hawaiian homesteaders, one water utility lobbies against the other, and every year, another well seems to go brackish. But Maui County has gathered its experts and rallied Molokai residents to look for solutions by drafting a new Water Use and Development Plan for the island.
Carl Freedman, a consultant for the County Department of Water Supply (DWS), has proposed the connecting of all Molokai’s water systems. He said interconnection was first proposed back in the 80’s and that the idea is being put back on the table in the process of examining options for meeting Molokai’s water demand.
Interconnection is just one of many strategies being looked at in meeting water supply objectives for DHHL, agriculture, domestic, cultural and commercial needs. Planning includes restoring and maintaining healthy streams, protecting watershed areas and aquifers, providing economical water supplies, and promoting efficient and sustainable water use. Developing new water sources and improving on existing systems through better maintenance are just two of the other options toward achieving these goals.
Molokai’s potable water supply is run by several different systems and entities. Those are the County DWS systems, the DHHL potable system, and private systems of Kawela Plantation, Molokai Ranch’s Molokai Public Utilities and Wai`ola, and small, privately owned systems. The state-run Molokai Irrigation System (MIS) operates the agricultural water system. Freedman’s interconnection strategy would leave only the MIS system and an interconnected potable water system inexistence.
Freedman points out that many of the well systems are being over-pumped, contributing to an increase in chlorides (salt) found in systems like DHHL’s .
Most systems also show high amounts of unaccounted-for water loss. The losses, explained Freedman, can mean anything from old, unmetered hookups to leaks in the pipelines. A recent audit and analysis of the DWS’s Kalae system proved very successful. Within one week, 40 percent of system losses were identified including a broken valve and leaks in the tank. The plan explains reduction of losses is promising for Molokai’s water systems.
One potential flaw of the proposed interconnecting system is its reliance on surface water. Surface water, explains Freedman, is water that has not yet percolated into the ground – or simply put: diverted streams. Surface water needs to be treated through filtration, while ground water only needs to be disinfected, according to Freedman. He says economically, the water treatment is less expensive than pumping it from ground sources. But, he adds, increased use of surface water is “at odds with the stream restoration concept.”
The Ranch Equation
As Molokai resident DeGray Vanderbilt pointed out, it is hard to think about interconnecting water systems when one of the biggest players in the equation “is not at the table.”
But Freedman has an even bigger concern. Molokai Ranch, which operates Molokai Public Utilities and Wai`ola systems, has indicated its desire to find another entity to run its water utilities. But, according to Freedman, the Ranch has not said whether its surface water system in Molokai’s Kamakou mountain range would be included in the deal. If the Ranch plans to retain the mountain system, Molokai could lose the half a million gallons per day that currently come from that source.
Connecting the Dots
The plan suggests management of the system could happen in one of three ways – the system could operate through a coordination agreement of existing utilities, a transfer of some systems to the County, or by establishing a municipal water district. But any way you look at it, Freedman said one of the proposal’s biggest hurdles is interconnecting the institutions along with the physical pipes.
Another potential downfall of the plan, he said, is its treatment of MIS non-potable surface water for potable uses. A statute governing the MIS system requires 2/3 availability to DHHL users. Freedman said right now, any homesteader can get a meter and use as much water as they want. But 2007-2008 records show that 83 percent of the system’s 3.2 million gallon per day production went to non-homestead agricultural use.
According to Freedman, non-homestead agriculture on the island, such as Monsanto, could be “on the margin” in the future if either MIS water was treated for potable uses or homestead usage increased significantly.
“There is already no extra water in the MIS system,” said Molokai resident and Planning Commission member Lori Buchanan.
“Interconnection might not be such a bad idea if we can work out the kinks,” said Molokai Planner Nancy McPherson. She cited decentralization and better water distribution as positive elements. “Long term, it’s the best solution,” she added, “but I don’t think we’re there yet.”
Ellen Kraftsow of the Department of Water Supply said she would like to see a cost analysis before considering the option of interconnection further.
“How would those costs translate back to consumers?” asked Vanderbilt.
Right now, many questions remain unanswered. But Freedman said he will continue to explore the idea of interconnection to include in the draft, though it many not be part of the DWS’s final recommendations.
“If nothing else, interconnection raises important policy questions that lawmakers should be aware of,” he said.
A hypothetical map of what Molokai’s water systems would look like if the option to connect existing systems is implemented. The MIS system would remain, and the other systems would be combined. Courtesy of Carl Freedman.