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Battle Over Water in Rain-Soaked Paradise

Hawaii: Lines are drawn over a plan to tap Maui's aquifers.


ULUPALAKUA, Hawaii — Sumner Erdman grazes his cattle on the wide slopes of southwestern Maui, where pastures normally get 32 inches of rain a year. But last year was so dry that his cows trampled down fences to get to water; their calves were thin and thirsty. Standing here, Erdman can look across the valley to the mountains, where there's so much water--almost 500 inches annually--that it seems to hang suspended in the air. From his vantage point, it is easy to see why this island, in many people's minds a rain-soaked tropical paradise, is bracing for a water war.

There is in fact plenty of water on Maui, hydrologists say. But it's not in the right place. Two decades of booming construction and tourism in central and southern Maui have heavily drawn down the main aquifer. And it will take even more water--10 million gallons more a day--over the next two decades to serve the projected new homes, golf courses and condominiums.

So county officials are looking to plentiful aquifers on the other side of the island. But a $49-million plan to build wells and pipelines in eastern Maui has been tied up in a court challenge. Conservationists fear it will damage streams in some of the island's loveliest rain forests; small farmers and longtime residents complain that the plan will pump much-needed water out of their neighborhoods and ship it to the other side of the island to benefit powerful land developers.

Meanwhile, folks like Erdman complain that they've watched the county spend millions delivering water to new commercial developments while their own lines run dry. "The problem Maui has right now is trying to come to some sort of middle ground on [development]. We're very far from getting there," he said.

In the high-altitude communities near Kula, above central Maui, some residents have been waiting more than 10 years for reliable water supplies. Elliott Krash and her neighbors have had to install a private system that pumps water from below at significant expense; many nearby residents have only low-quality water or very low pressure.

"There are more than 800 people on the list" who are waiting for reliable water supplies, Krash said. At a recent meeting to decide how some newly available supplies might be apportioned, she said, "there were people in tears. People yelling and screaming. People who stood up and said, 'My father died waiting for this water.' "

Increasingly, critics are demanding a complete accounting of the available water for this island of 117,600 residents. Maui is facing one of the highest growth rates in the state, but it has never conducted a sophisticated study of how much water it has--or even how much is being pumped out of the ground every day.

"We're already using more than a million gallons a day more [in central and southern Maui] than we're responsibly supposed to take out of the ground," said Jonathan Starr, a member of the Maui Board of Water Supply. "There's no management. It's like the wild, wild West."

Agriculture always has had first dibs on water on Maui, home to Hawaii's last big sugar cane plantations. The East Maui Irrigation Co., the water arm of the powerful grower and developer Alexander & Baldwin Inc., controls 85% of the surface water available for development. The company diverts about 160 million gallons a day out of the eastern rain forests and streams and into its sugar cane fields under a leasing contract with the county. By contrast, the county delivers only 35 million gallons a day to island residents.

The company gradually is converting many of those fields to commercial development, including a world-class resort at Wailea--a community that looks like a tropical wonderland but is built on arid land that sprouts cactus when it's not watered.

County water officials say predictions of water shortfalls that have come with such growth are premature. They can meet future demand, they say, but it will take substantial investments in wells and pipelines.

"What we've basically been trying to do over the last 10 years is to catch up with the fact that no additional water was developed during the 1980s, and that was a really high growth time," said David Craddick, water supply director. "We have the ground water availability.... The problem is, the water is not where the people are."

For years, Maui has relied on water from the large Iao aquifer under the central part of the island. But demand increased by nearly 750,000 gallons a day each year over the last decade, although it has slowed a bit in the last couple of years.

In 1980, the island was pumping 9.7 million gallons a day out of the aquifer. By 1996, that figure had doubled to what the U.S. Geological Survey determined was the aquifer's maximum sustainable yield.

Bill Meyer, who recently retired as USGS regional director, said the agency came to realize that, even at the usage level considered sustainable, the aquifer was falling so much that salt from the surrounding seawater was making its way in.

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