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Persistent drought draining Big Island residents’ wallets

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The drought has some Big Island residents spending more to fill their catchment tanks

This year’s exceptional drought is driving up the cost of living in the Big Island’s parched Kau desert.

Many people in the Ocean View subdivisions live removed from the county water supply system, relying instead on rainwater catchment systems.

Trouble is, there’s been precious little rain.

So residents have been forced to replenish their catchment tanks more often, some paying up to $350 a month to have water hauled from the nearest fill station, 14 miles away in Naalehu.

The final phase of a $6 million project to bring county water to the area is slated to begin this month but is not scheduled for completion until next summer.

"There are two 30-mile stretches with no potable water in my district," observed Rep. Bob Herkes (D, Puna-Pahoa). "There are no water fountains, no county buildings, no schools. If there’s no pipe water, you can’t have a school."

Residents have been clamoring for years for a spigot to fill drinking-water containers and a convenient fill station where water haulers can pump water for delivery. The Legislature approved funding for that in 2006, and an exploratory well was dug soon after but the project has languished since then.

Milton Pavao, director of Hawaii County’s Department of Water Supply, said it took longer than expected to design the second phase of the project — which includes installing the pump, motor and control building, piping, reservoir and electrical work. The design has now been approved and received the necessary permits, he said.

The contractor, however, missed the Aug. 9 construction start date.

Hawaii has been suffering through the worst drought in the nation, according to National Weather Service hydrologist Kevin Kodama.

The Kau District reached D4 conditions, the worst designation, on July 6. South Kohala also has a D4 designation, but it has a consistent supply of county water. They are the only districts to reach D4 conditions since the monitoring system began in 1999.

South Point in Kau has not received even 2 inches of rain to date this year, Kodama said.

"If you’re on catchment, depending on your storage (capacity), even fairly short deficits can have an impact on you," Kodama said. "This is kind of a long one."

Perhaps nowhere else in Hawaii is water such a critical problems as in Ocean View, where about 5,000 people occupy seven subdivisions.

"We’ve been battling for water for 16 or 18 years," said bed-and-breakfast owner Don Nitsche, 80. "Water’s a very big item in Ocean View."

While other Big Island regions rely on catchment systems, Ocean View residents must hire water haulers to travel at least 27 miles round trip to Naalehu, where the nearest county emergency water spigot and fill stations are located.

Whereas residents of rainier Puna fill their catchment tanks two to three times a year, Ocean View residents fill at least six times a year, Pavao estimated.

Social worker Randy Mitchell fills his catchment tank every two weeks, paying about $350 a month for his family of four and to keep his upstart farm from drying up.

But many of his low-income clients cannot afford a catchment system. Instead, they make the long drive to fill up 55-gallon drums and other containers, Mitchell said.

With water in short supply, some forgo a daily bath, he said.

"There are no outdoor showers anywhere," he said. "They’re not drinking enough water, too."

Ironically, the 100 or so low-income families living in rentals, shacks and camps often find themselves paying a premium for a gallon of water at the local grocery.

For water haulers, meanwhile, the drought has translated to big business.

"We’ve been busy since the beginning of the year," said Elizabeth Young, who schedules runs for the family water-hauling business, the Charles Young Co. "Sometimes they don’t even check on it. They run out of water and they start calling."

The company runs three 6,000-gallon-capacity trucks full time daily, with 15 loads a day to Ocean View and South Kona, and is booked for the next two weeks. A delivery costs $185 to $195, depending on the distance.

Even after the county project is completed, water costs will not go down, said water hauler Casey Santana, owner of Pure Hawaiian Water.

He claims water department tests showed Ocean View’s well will allow water haulers to pump at a rate of only 150 gallons a minute. That means it would take trucks 45 minutes to fill up, compared with 25 minutes at Naalehu, which provides 250 gallons a minute.

Santana estimates the extra time would cost him an extra $60 in pay for drivers. That is more than the $35 in extra fuel for the longer trip.

"It would be cheaper to go to Naalehu," he said.

Pavao, the county water manager, said he has no gallon-per-minute figures for the Ocean View project.

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