Sunday, July 20, 2014

The only issue in the mayor's race

It is raining this morning, refilling the reservoirs and forestalling worries about an Upcountry water shortage till next year. Yet water is still the only issue in local politics. If we don't fix water, it won't matter what else we do.

The county is, at last and much too late, replacing Shaft 33, which is the immediate problem.

The long-term issues are moving to groundwater and, somewhat paradoxically, acquiring the Brewer watershed.

The Supreme Court's decisions on Waiahole Ditch and other water cases make it clear that over time, more and more surface water is going to be withdrawn from public uses. This is not a practical problem, as there is plenty of groundwater.

But it is a financial problem, since groundwater is more expensive. Not more expensive than we can bear, but more expensive.

On the plus side, it is more reliable, once we have it.

But it will probably be decades before drastic reductions in access to surface water are ordered. The county must acquire the Brewer watershed in West Maui.

If water is a public trust, and the court says it is, then watersheds are a public responsibility. There is no urgency in removing well-managed watersheds run by stable companies to public ownership, and besides, most of the East Maui and Molokai watersheds are already public lands.

But the West Maui watershed is owned by a non-operating company with almost no income, no financial strength and no staff to look after the forest.

Birds spread miconia, and so far all that attention has been focused on East Maui. What happens when miconia (or some other plague) arrives in the Brewer watershed?

Nobody is minding the store.

Alan Arakawa is probably going to be re-elected, although the memory of Bernard Akana beating Dante Carpenter proves there are no sure things in local politics. He does not understand the Brewer watershed.

I do not believe he understands water issues, period. Sixteen years ago, when he was running for mayor the first time, we happened to meet at a high school graduation party and had a long talk about water. I learned his ideas about it were far different from mine.

So far as I can tell, he hasn't learned anything about it since.

Recall he wanted to control the Brewer water intakes but did not want to spend money on the land that fed the intakes.  There really was -- and is -- no advantage to controlling the intakes; the water, so long as it exists, will come out of them and go into the ditches. Where else could it go?

In the end, he got neither and between his blunders and the County Council's thrashing around trying (and failing) to get a piece of the play, the taxpayers were mulcted of over half a million dollars. For nothing.

The last asking price I heard for the watershed (including the intakes that Arakawa was once willing to pay $7 million for) was around $20 million -- 4 elementary school cafeterias or a quarter of an airport access road. Cheap at the price.

The history of county water has been penny wise and pound foolish all along.

As far as I can tell, water is not an issue for any of the 6 or 7 candidates, most of whom are off on luddite drives against agriculture.

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