In wake of devastating wildfire, experts propose new sources of water for parched West Maui

The West Maui water shortage is part of the reason for the devastating wildfire in Lahaina — and has caused huge division in the community.
Published: Sep. 20, 2023 at 4:15 PM HST|Updated: Sep. 20, 2023 at 7:04 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - The West Maui water shortage is part of the reason for the devastating wildfire in Lahaina — and has caused huge division in the community.

Now state officials are proposing at least part of the solution.

The fallow fields of invasive grasses above Lahaina may have been where the deadly fires began, but even before that they were symptoms of an environment starving for water.

At an emotional meeting of the water commission Tuesday, Water Commission Hydrologist Ayron Strauch gave a chilling description of the ongoing drought.

“Essentially, we are in a new climate pattern,” he said.

One example is Kau’aula Stream, which sustains taro farms as well as irrigation for luxury homes above Launiupoko. Strauch told the commission the diversion for irrigation may have to stop.

“There is not sufficient water ... to meet all of these uses,” he said.

But Strauch also presented a potential solution: Expand plans for the county’s new wastewater recycling system by repurposing and restoring reservoirs, pipelines and ditches to make the recycled water for irrigation available across West Maui.

The plan would also bring drinkable water from two high-mountain tunnels into the county system.

Land and Natural Resources Chair Dawn Chang said she asked the commission staff to look into new sources of water after the fires.

“We came up with the idea but we really want the county to implement,” Chang said. “Because we really want them to be the end users and distributor.”

Chang said a funding ask could be added to the state’s request for disaster relief funding from congress. and Commission Member Neil Hannahs was ready to sell the idea to funders, including FEMA, insurance companies and philanthropic organizations.

“If they could see the impact of investment being a real long term improved use of water,” he said, “and mitigation of the risk for wildfire because you have more land less land in fallow.”

The plan would also have the support of environmentalists who support traditional farming and have fought for reuse of wastewater instead of injecting into the ground...and polluting the ocean.

Earthjustice Attorney David Henkin called the plan a “win-win.”

“This recycled water is a very valuable resource for irrigation, and it’s also very harmful to the reef,” Henkin said. “So let’s keep it off the reef and reuse it.”

The plan would also need approvals by the legislature and the county, and would involve purchases and potentially condemnation of private irrigation assets, and is only part of the solution. So it won’t bring a quick end to West Maui’s water battle.