WAILUKU – If you ask Department of Water Supply Director Dave Taylor what keeps him awake at night, he might think of something lurking in the depths of a 647-foot-long tunnel.
A single, aging pump, accessible only by descending to the very bottom of “Shaft 33,” a 65-year-old well above Wailuku, is responsible for delivering more than 5 million gallons of water per day to Central and South Maui. If the pump were to fail, thousands of residents could be without water until it was repaired – and that would be a long wait, he said.
“This kind of thing would be very, very hard to fix,” he said. “It’s difficult even to get to.”
While voters clamor for the county to provide more water to a growing population – and politicians promise to deliver it – Taylor said one of his biggest jobs will be to remind people that the county first needs to take care of the water customers it already serves. And that can take a lot of time and money in a system that includes more than 750 miles of pipelines; infrastructure located deep in mountainous jungles; and century-old water intakes and ditches that must integrate with state-of-the-art treatment plants.
“All the discussion is about expanding service,” he said. “There’s very little discussion about what it takes to keep reliable service to existing customers.”
Calling Shaft 33 one of the system’s weakest links, Taylor said it’s imperative that the county continue a project that is already under way to replace the aging well with three smaller, modern ones tapping into the same aquifer. Taylor said the project would provide more redundancy to the system and prevent a massive disruption in water service if Shaft 33 were to fail.
“We’re so dependent on it right now, and it’s very difficult to fix in place, which is why one of our high priorities are these wells to replace it,” he said.
The Department of Water Supply has requested $2.3 million in the county’s 2012 budget to continue work on the project.
To help decision-makers plan for expensive repair and maintenance work, Taylor said, his department is developing a complete inventory of upcoming projects and what they will cost. The schedule will outline for county officials not only the projects that need to be done to keep the system safe and reliable, but also the rate increases that will be necessary to pay for it.
Taylor created a similar plan during his tenure as the county’s Wastewater Division chief, and was praised by officials for a system that got the division caught up on infrastructure projects and took the surprises out of its annual budget requests and rate adjustments.
He has previously said he would like the water plan to be ready in time for next year’s budget request, and that he hoped the system could get the department back on track with its capital improvement project schedule in about three years.
“We have to get in this mindset that we’re going to identify our needs five or six years before we need them, and commit resources at that time,” he said. “Otherwise, we’re behind.”
Expansion and improvement projects, including supplying water to residents on the Upcountry meter waiting list, will be “extras” on the list, he said – projects that the county should consider, but only after it covers the cost of repairs and maintenance on the current system.
“Once everybody buys into that, then the question is, ‘How much more are we willing to pay?’ ” he said.
Taylor has said previously that one of his priorities after being appointed in January was to have his department complete an inventory of applicants on the Upcountry meter list, to determine exactly how much water landowners on the list were asking for, and how many of their properties would need extensive infrastructure improvements in order to receive the water when it became available.
While much of the discussion on Upcountry’s water issues has surrounded the development of new wells or reservoirs, Taylor said inadequate infrastructure could potentially be an even bigger problem.
That’s because the area is so rural and spread out that many properties would likely require extensive pipelines and other improvements in order to connect with the county’s system when they receive a water meter – improvements the landowner will be required to pay for.
“It’s just been unspoken that that’s the applicant’s problem,” he said. “I don’t think most of the public really understands the gravity of that statement. You may come up on the list, and we may offer you a meter, but you may have to do a hundred thousand dollars worth of improvements to get that water.”
With numerous private wells in development, some of which could be available for purchase, he said the county is closer than ever to acquiring a new water source or sources for Upcountry. That makes it even more important to complete an inventory of applicants and examine whether there’s a better way to accomplish the needed infrastructure improvements, he said.
Another key policy question is how to distribute the cost of developing water sources and infrastructure for Upcountry residents, Taylor said. The county could acquire water almost immediately by purchasing existing wells or wells under development, he said, but the water would come at a great and continuing cost because of the need to pump it to a high elevation.
“Already, the people down-country are subsidizing the water for people Upcountry,” Taylor said. “It just costs a lot to pump the water. The question is: are there limits to that? The question is: because these people have waited for so long, are we going to say, ‘cost is no option,’ even if we raise rates for everybody else?”
Another option, he said, could be breaking from the county’s past policy of equalizing water rates and setting a separate, higher rate for the costlier Upcountry service.
Taylor said he hoped to have the inventory of Upcountry meter applicants and estimated infrastructure costs completed by this summer.
While he said he wants to provide information to the mayor and County Council members about the costs and impacts of potential future water policies, Taylor doesn’t see himself as an advocate for any one path. Instead he said his role is to prepare a “menu of options” for decision-makers, and then to carry out their wishes.
“Ten people were elected – I was not,” he said. “It almost doesn’t matter what people like me think is best. I think our role is to present facts clearly, talk about the pluses or minuses, and let the elected officials – who were voted to represent the will of the people – choose.”
But he said he wouldn’t be shy about insisting the county prioritize essential repair and maintenance ahead of “add-ons” like expanded service.
Taylor said he took heat for that position during his tenure as wastewater chief, when he advocated strongly for the county to replace aging injection wells and sewer infrastructure at the same time voters were “screaming” to expand recycled water service. He said he supported the idea of water reclamation – but not if it meant sacrificing the projects that were necessary to keep the existing sewer system functioning.
He said he would bring the same philosophy to the Department of Water Supply.
“Safe, reliable service for existing customers – we have to do whatever it takes,” he said. “Then we can be sure that we’re not taking money that should go into reliability, and just expanding the system. Because then 10 years later, you have an even bigger system that fails even worse.”