The tale of the purloined Kula water meters
by Susan Halas, Lahaina News, Oct 12, 2023 (reprinted with permission)
KULA — The fires on Aug. 8th and 9th, which reduced Lahaina Town to ashes, also did significant damage to homes Upcountry. This was especially true in Kula, where properties located along a gulch were hard hit when the fires hopscotched through the neighborhood, burning 19 and leaving others intact.
What is notable about the Kula situation is that not long after the blaze had been partially contained, the county’s Department of Water Supply (DWS), without notice or explanation, came in and removed the water meters from many (but not all) of these sites.
Since then the property owners have been in limbo. Though there are still multiple hot spots in the gulch, owners find that without water they are unable to clean up properly or plant ground cover to stabilize the terrain which they fear is likely to slide even further in the near future. From August until October, they have been unable to get an answer, much less a straight answer, from DWS on when their meters will be returned.
They are angry and they are frustrated; as they individually and collectively told the Lahaina News, “It’s a communication thing.”
Though right now they are most concerned about restoring their own water supply, they hypothetically wonder if the DWS can’t handle this small number of meters in Kula, what are their plans for the more than 2,000 meters on affected properties in Lahaina?
The Lahaina News interviewed six of the 19 owners by phone; they were Mark Ross, Kari McCarthy, Tom Liu, Paula Polland, Andre Fehlmann and Sweetheart Mori. Though there were some variations in their stories, they all said that without their knowledge or consent, their water meter had been taken and five of them were unable to get any kind of a clear answer when they would get it back.
Of that group, only Mark Ross was able to get his meter reinstalled. In an email, he wrote, “I had to get a plumber to install a backflow preventer on my system in order to get my meter returned. The total cost to me was $1,584.89….As of today,” he continued, “not one phone call, email, text, or mailing has been supplied (by the DWS).” Or in the words of Kari McCarthy, “People who are not willing to communicate with the public directly should not be in those jobs.”
The Lahaina News had a similar experience. On Oct. 5, a detailed media inquiry sent to the county’s Department of Communication received no reply. A follow up text on Oct. 9 also went unanswered. Finally, on Oct. 10, a request for a written explanation broadly cc’d landed on the right desk, and that afternoon we received a series of emails from DWS Director John Stufflebean.
First he wrote: “The policy on meter replacement was developed this week in coordination with the Corp(oration) Council and the Mayor’s Office and will be communicated in a news release today.
“In general, we need to pull meters on fire damaged structures to protect the public water system. When we do that we cancel their potable water account.
“For those people who want an ‘irrigation’ meter, we will be opening an irrigation account for them which has a lower water rate. When they are ready to occupy a dwelling, they will be converted to a potable account when the water system is safe.” – John Stufflebean
That message was 106 words and didn’t quite answer the question. When asked for more detail, another email followed (Tuesday, Oct. 10, at 1:23 p.m.):
“They will not be charged for meter replacement,” Stufflebean wrote
“We have been very busy responding to the huge demands resulting from the fire as well as the normal requirements, for which we were already understaffed and underfunded.
“We have been focusing on restoring safe water as quickly as possible. The process for accomplishing this is extremely complex and time-consuming requiring the full time efforts of our laboratory, operations, and engineering staff.
“The entire DWS communication staff is less than half of one person. Our communication goes out via the Communications Office and the Office of Emergency Management.
“Updates regarding water have been put out almost every day. I have been communicating with the news media on a daily basis on the numerous topics that are created by the disaster of the century and they have been extremely helpful on (sic) getting out accurate information.”
While those were all extenuating circumstances, his reply still didn’t still didn’t really answer the questions. So we spelled it out (Tuesday, Oct. 10, at 3:49 p.m.):
1. How do you expect to deal with a similar situation in Lahaina? Has any policy or timeline been established with regard to the removal and reinstallation of the affected Lahaina water meters? If not, when do you expect to have this information available?
“There are two different situations in Lahaina.
“In some areas, there are only a few homes that were destroyed by fire (similar to Upper Kula). For these areas, we are on course to restore potable water to the unimpacted homes.
“It is essential for public health reasons to remove meters from lots where there was fire damage. Our policy as approved by the Mayor is to reestablish service with an irrigation account. We can not have a potable account to a lot where there is no potable use. Also, the irrigation rate is much lower than the potable rate so we want the owner to benefit from the lower rate.
“For the areas where all or nearly all of the homes were destroyed, it will take much longer to reestablish water service. In other cities with major fires, it took years. It is our intention whenever possible to provide irrigation service if possible.”
2. Why were the Kula fire victims given no notification, explanation and stonewalled when they tried to follow up? Why do you think installing irrigation meters as opposed to their regular meters is the right course of action?
“We do think the irrigation meters are the right course of action as stated above. We didn’t stonewall at all. We were focusing on restoring potable water service to as many areas as possible as quickly as we could.
“It is true that some communications went unanswered. One reason is that the County communications systems are not always functioning. There were times that I received no emails for days.
“The second reason is that we have no call center and no PIO (Public Information Officer). Our Human Resources manager does the PIO work as he can. So the only people to return calls are the operational staff. There have been times when they needed to focus on restoring service rather than answering calls.”
3. The Kula people are not happy with the response (or lack of it) they received from DWS. They have suffered a traumatic loss and they believe they have been treated shabbily by your department. At minimum an adequate explanation is requested. What is your explanation? Do you think an apology is in order?
“The explanation is we are focusing nearly every waking minute on restoring their water service. This includes developing a plan for rebuilding the entire Lahaina water system.
“We have been disseminating a lot of information, but we understand that not everyone will receive it.
“Many DWS staff are also victims. For example, our lab manager and one of our six lab technicians lost their homes in the fire. They have been working nearly every day since August 8 to assist their neighbors and perform their regular full time duties.”
4. Any other comments?
“Our focus has been on getting out the most important information which is where the unsafe water advisories are and what to do if you are in one of those areas.
“We have also been completely transparent by posting all lab results as soon as they are available. We have been working with both the Hawaii Department of Health and the US EPA nearly every day to resolve the many issues that come up in dealing with the impacts of fire on water systems.
“The Maui water systems are very complicated and not designed to modern standards, both of which present many issues to address. And we are only at half staff in our engineering division. There is no manual on this since it is a fairly new problem and the science is in its early stages. This is why we are being super careful.
“Also, we are working to improve our communications which are adequate during normal times but need a huge boost during major crises.”
Property owner Kari McCarthy reported she received a phone call from Stufflebean and is cautiously optimistic that progress is being made, but was hesitant to comment further until the irrigation meter is actually installed.
In related news, the county announced today that Mayor Richard Bissen will submit a proposal developed by the Department of Water Supply to the Maui County Council that would establish three categories for customer billing to address impacts of the Aug. 8 wildfires in Lahaina and Upper Kula.
“By establishing these categories, we can help to alleviate some of the hardship residents in disaster-affected areas are experiencing,” said Mayor Bissen. “It’s necessary to take into account the circumstances our residents are facing from the devastating fires.”
The proposed categories are:
Category 1: Customers whose houses were destroyed. For these customers, the Director of the Department of Water Supply has temporarily canceled water service until the property owner is ready for reconnection. Customers may request Temporary Irrigation Rates for the maintenance of lawns, crops or gardens if applicable.
Category 2: Customers whose water was used to assist in extinguishing the August wildfires. For these customers, a claim form will need to be filled out and submitted to the County Clerk’s Office for reimbursement. Claim forms can be obtained at the County website at Office of the County Clerk | Maui County, HI – Official Website.
Category 3: Customers in Unsafe Water Advisory areas due to the wildfires. Pending County Council approval, customers in the Unsafe Water Advisory areas would only pay the base water service charge based on the size of their meters. The water service charges per meter per month are $22.77 for a 5/8-inch meter, $36.80 for a 3/4-inch meter, $54.63 for a 1-inch meter, $104.65 for a 1.5-inch meter, $162.15 for a 2-inch meter, $286.35 for a 3-inch meter, $496.80 for a 4-inch meter, $911.95 for a 6-inch meter and $1,438.65 for an 8-inch meter.
The proposal will be submitted for review and consideration by the County Council, whose approval is necessary.