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South Maui’s Water Disconnect

Experts offer solutions to problems resulting from inequity in area’s water use vs. precipitation.

May 30, 2013
Celeste Keele - Contributing Writer , Maui Weekly

When you shower or see golf course and hotel sprinklers in action, do you even contemplate the source of all this water?

Where does our water come from on the South Side? Keep in mind that the area receives an average of only 10 to 30 inches of rainfall annually, qualifying it as desert to semiarid to sub-humid in climatology terms.

How much water do we use, how does it get here, and how will it keep flowing in the face of future growth and development?

Article Photos

Permaculturist Michael Howden tells the KCA “the solution is doing what is pono.”

Experts spent the evening at the Kihei Community Association (KCA) meeting on May 21 trying to convince the audience of concerned South Maui citizens that the discussion of water quality and quantity on Maui--particularly South Maui--is not just a heady concern for government leaders and the bureaucracy.

"This is your life and your wealth," stressed Permaculturalist and past Maui County Board of Water Supply Chair Michael Howden.

Yes, programs to ensure our ongoing and future water supply are being reviewed, he agreed, but "in an agonizingly slow manner," said Howden. "At this point in our history, you have to engage."

"Kihei is a lot drier than it used to be," pointed out Jonathan Starr, state commissioner of Water Resource Management. "It was once all wetland. But in an act many consider a real tragedy, the wetlands were all drained and the forests cut down."

And South Maui uses more water than the rest of the island, especially as large amounts of water are pumped out of sprinklers to make our yards look tropical or to make a field "look like a golf course," with only a half-inch of topsoil covering a bed of rocks, Starr observed.

"We're headed towards living in a real desert with limited resources," Starr warned, as rainfall is declining and water in the aquifers has gone down 20 to 40 percent in the last 100 years. This reality versus the dream of living in a tropical paradise is "the disconnect," Starr noted, and is why we "need a reshuffling of the deck in the ways we live and in our priorities."

"Water is life itself on our islands. We need to respect it," insisted Starr. "There's not so much water that we can afford to have it held as a commodity on a balance sheet."

Most of the water--about 85 percent of it--is controlled by private entities, not the municipal system, explained Starr. "And when we need more of it for the common good, there's conflict."

Where's the water coming from?

"More than 70 percent of Maui's water comes from 'Iao, and the salinity has risen, contaminating more than 20 feet," explained Howden. "It's the engine of economic growth; it's your livelihood; it's the future of Central and South Maui."

Howden wants to see more water saved in East Maui.

"You're not building the aquifer, not allowing it to heal," Howden said. "What we have now are a few corporate entities taking out of the East Maui watershed, which is a mess."

Howden told the KCA and the audience to speak up and be heard, because "if you don't, you're trading out the future. You have rights, and the earth has rights."

In terms of water for future development, Starr said, "We don't have enough. I mean, we're already contaminating the aquifer."

Starr explained that with development comes the thorny question of the rights of existing consumers. "Should they have to cut back so we can make room for more water users?"

Environmental Scientist Robin Knox said we'd all have a lot more to talk about "if we discuss water quality rather than quantity--and work together."

The mass undertaking she has helped develop is the Southwest Maui Watershed Project, with goals of fishable, swimmable ocean water, increased potable water and decreased flooding.

"In the 30 years of doing this," Knox said she learned most that "if we pay attention to the quality, then a lot of the system's problems get taken care of in the process."

A watershed is an area that is drained by a river or other body of water, and "mauka to makai, we all live in a watershed," Knox pointed out. So, how do we increase the future water supply? By using an integrated approach, she said, including conserving water (decreasing output), increasing transmission efficiency (some water evaporates in open ditches while being sent to South Maui), recycling wastewater, restoring ecosystems, and green planning and development (e.g., "retrofit existing developed areas and mimic nature with all new development").

For more information, go to To read more about Maui's aquifers, see

"It's all one water," Knox said is the important message to remember.

For instance, if we take water from streams, they are no longer feeding the deep freshwater aquifers. We have to realize it's all interconnected, Knox stressed. And the island environment isn't the only victim when it comes to mismanagement of water--so is the economy.

"A shortage of developed potable water sources limits economic development," explained Knox.

In the end, Howden summed up the concerns and hopes of the meeting: "Wake up, folks. It's an integrated problem and an integrated fix. The solution is doing what's pono."



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