Overconsumption, pump issues put North Kona on verge of water rationing

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KAILUA-KONA — West Hawaii might be in the thick of rainy season, but water stores in North Kona continue to dry up.

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KAILUA-KONA — West Hawaii might be in the thick of rainy season, but water stores in North Kona continue to dry up.

The county Department of Water Supply reported last week that North Kona consumers are largely ignoring the mandatory 25 percent reduction in water usage the department first issued in January.

Some compliance was observed early on but dropped off in recent months, according to the department’s tracking of pumping and consumption rates. This, in turn, landed the region on the cusp of severe rationing that could include segmented discontinuation of general water services throughout the community on a strategic basis.

“People need to know the extreme seriousness of the situation now,” said Mayor Harry Kim, who voiced disappointment with the nonchalant approach many residents and businesses appear to have assumed with regard to the restriction. “Any future failures of additional pumps will cause us to go to another level, meaning for some people, water will have to be rotated.”

Keith Okamoto, manager and chief engineer with DWS, said 13 wells service the area. Four of them have been concurrently inoperable since January.

He noted that if one more well were to fall out of commission, the result would be “catastrophic.” The situation is more dire than even that, however.

A hiccup in power supply taking even one well offline for as little as a few hours could cause a dramatic drop in tank levels and prove the impetus for drastic changes in water availability.

“All it takes is a glitch in power or some other short-term effect that might discontinue the ability of our existing wells to continue pumping,” Okamoto said. “If people don’t start complying, the available water in our storage tanks is going to deplete pretty rapidly. Ultimately, that could result in a disruption in water service.”

Robert Ravenscraft, water district supervisor in Kona, said the department’s booster system is bearing the brunt of extra work as it pumps more than half a million gallons per day from lower elevation wells north to the more heavily impacted areas.

But those boosters pre-date the construction of higher elevation wells and weren’t built to handle the water consumption of North Kona’s current population.

Okamoto said roughly 12 million gallons are pumped in Kona daily, rendering the booster system nothing more than a stop-gap solution. The extra strain on the boosters, as well as the functioning wells, makes the situation even more precarious.

“Not paying attention to the restriction puts extreme stress on additional pumps … which increases the workload of the remaining pumps and therefore increases the possibility of failure,” Kim said. “This is a time to rest the pumps as much as possible.”

The big drain

While there are several measures residents can take to conserve water, from limiting shower duration to only washing full loads of clothing and dishes, Okamoto said cutbacks to one specific activity would produce the greatest impact.

“At this point, it appears irrigation is the largest contributor to the problem,” he said. “We’re asking if people can review their irrigation systems at their households and find ways to cut back.”

Rain events in Kona result in quicker tank recovery, which led to the department’s determination. Okamoto said avoiding excessive irrigation and watering at night when evaporation is less of a concern are crucial steps.

DWS serves more than 11,000 accounts in Kona and doesn’t have the manpower to investigate misuse on a singular basis, and there is no fine system in place. However, the rules and regulations do allow for the discontinuation of water on the basis of wasteful usage.

Okamoto said concerned citizens can report misuse to DWS, which will follow up on those complaints. But in the interim, officials are hopeful a better understanding of the situation will inspire public compliance and render future enforcement actions unnecessary.

“Most people waste water … and we can get through this without people suffering any expense,” Kim said. “But if we keep up normal usage, we’re inviting problems.”

Tentative timeline

DWS expects the deep well at Waiaha to be the first of four inoperable wells to return to functional status. Ravenscraft said repairs should begin in early July and wrap up near the end of the month, assuming all goes according to plan.

Waiaha is home to a 2 million-gallon tank. While bringing it back online would ease tension on the system overall, Ravenscraft added it wouldn’t end the water restriction. Okamoto said the restriction isn’t likely to be pulled until at least one of the remaining three deep wells at Hualalai, Keopu and Palani start pumping again.

Upgrades at Palani are set for completion at the end of October, while work at Hualalai initially was projected to finish up in late November. Okamoto is hopeful, however, that Palani and Hualalai might come back online ahead of schedule. The motors and pumps for those two sites are expected to arrive on island by the end of August.

How it happened

DWS typically expects well repairs to take at least 4-6 months as motors and pumps are custom made and built to order, meaning manufacturers don’t stock them.

Costs for repairs range between $300,000 and $800,000, depending on the well and specific repairs. Bid processes go out for each project, rendering the process even more protracted.

Equipment life is generally projected at about seven years, and Okamoto said part of the water availability problems in Kona can be attributed simply to unfortunate timing.

“They didn’t all fail at once, but because of the time duration for these repair jobs, four happened to be down at one time,” he explained. “Our plan moving forward is to have a backup pump and motor for the more high capacity, critical wells.”

Another part of the strategy includes bidding out repair jobs before they’re necessary to shorten the duration of interruptions.

Finally, DWS is considering two smaller capacity pumps at each well instead of one to reduce strain and allow for partial pumping availability if one pump goes down before the other. This strategy is more expensive, Okamoto said, but will provide more well durability.

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“We have got to be better prepared and have the appropriate spare pumps and motors on hand,” Okamoto said.

Email Max Dible at mdible@westhawaiitoday.com.

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