Tapped Out

Faced with a looming water crisis, can Maui juggle its environmental and economic needs?

Maui County water director Jeff Eng is stuck in a catch-22.

Illustration:  Jen Tadaki Catanzariti

With Maui in a summer drought and facing possible countywide water restrictions for the first time in memory, the County Council’s “Show Me the Water” bill seemed to make sense. The law, passed last December, simply required developers to show a long-term source of water for their projects. 

But some Maui residents say the new law amounts to a de facto moratorium on growth, and it’s created a catch-22 that makes it virtually impossible for all but the largest projects to move forward.

Try to follow this: Under the law, landowners must demonstrate that they have a reliable, long-term source of water for their projects before they can gain County approval to subdivide a property. The problem? The County only issues water meters for projects after they’re built. It no longer provides advance reservations for meters. That means developers can’t prove that public water will be available for their projects, which means that they can’t get the County’s OK to build. The irony is that, in most cases, they would get the public water if they had been allowed to build to begin with.

Maui is already dangerously close to overtapping its water systems.

As a result, the only projects moving forward under the new law are the ones with preexisting water hookups or those large enough to justify digging their own wells. “Basically, the big boys can do their own private source,” says County water director Jeff Eng. “The small developers have no options. They can’t proceed.”

With stacks of angry letters from landowners competing for space on his desk with a blood-pressure monitor, Eng says he thinks the intent of the law was good, but that it’s had some unintended consequences. “We’re doing our best to administer this, but, yes, it’s been real difficult for me,” he says.

Developer Charlie Jencks says “Show Me the Water” couldn’t have happened at a worse time. The building industry is already dealing with a slowing national economy that’s sucking away potential Maui investors and a local housing market that’s gathering dust. “It’s like a triple whammy,” he says.

But Irene Bowie, president of the citizens group Maui Tomorrow, considers the bill a “step in the right direction.” Maui is already dangerously close to overtapping its water resources, and any potential new sources are still years away. “How do we know how much further we can go with development until we have a handle on how much water there is?” Bowie asks.

As much heartburn as the law has caused him, Eng concedes that it has probably met its original intent. The County’s water system is near breaking point, with a years-long waiting list for water meters in Upcountry and the Central Maui water system slated for takeover by the state.

The only way Maui County continues to issue meters? It’s now pumping sources in excess of the water system’s standards. If projects that have already been approved came in for water tomorrow, they could demand an additional 800,000 gallons a day. “We’re beyond maxed out,” Eng says.