Hawaii & Alaska
A burned lot in Lahaina after being sprayed down with Soiltac by the Environmental Protection Agency. (Courtesy: Environmental Protection Agency/2023)

HI - It Will Be Years Before Clean Water Is Restored In Lahaina

Rebuilding the water system is likely to cost tens of millions of dollars and could be a limiting factor in rebuilding the town.

As Maui grapples with the trauma of the August fires and tries to envision the future of Lahaina, the mission to rebuild is complicated by a major obstacle: the contamination of the drinking water system.

When fires tore through the town on Aug. 8, the heat melted pipes, polluting the water inside with toxic chemicals. Officials are now testing for contamination property by property. Early testing has already exposed the presence of the carcinogen benzene and other chemicals but officials are only starting to understand the scope of the problem. They haven’t widely sampled the core of the burn zone.

Testing will be followed by a mass flushing of the system until the water runs clean. Approximately 2,200 service lines were impacted and may need to be replaced.

Restoring the system could take two to three years and could hold up redevelopment efforts, according to John Stufflebean, the director of Maui County’s Department of Water Supply who based the estimate on other comparable wildfire disasters.

Supplies to help those affected by the wildfires are distributed Sunday, Aug. 13, 2023, in Napili. A large fire consumed areas of West Maui last week. Utilities have not been fully restored.  (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
Supplies to help those affected by the wildfires were distributed in the days after the fire in Napili. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

“People wouldn’t be able to live there until the water system is back in place,” he said. “In other cases, that was the limiting factor, getting water back into the areas.”

Waiting that long to rebuild will be “disastrous” for Lahaina families who will probably, in the meantime, have to pay the mortgages on their burnt properties as well as rent elsewhere, according to John Sarter, whose Puapihi Street rental property burned down in the blaze.

“I worry a lot of the families that have been here for generations are just going to give up,” he said. “If people get delayed two to three years, they’re going to go bankrupt.”

Sarter, a longtime general contractor, is hoping the restoration of the water infrastructure can happen in tandem with rebuilding efforts. He would like to see residents return to their land as soon as possible, perhaps in tiny homes on wheels, so that they don’t have to pay double housing costs. As for water access, he wonders if tanks can be brought in as a temporary measure until the permanent system is restored.

“There is no reason it can’t happen concurrently,” he said.

Either way, bringing the water system back into service won’t be cheap.

A rough estimate is approximately $80 million, Stufflebean said. That’s the size of his entire annual budget, although he is hoping the Federal Emergency Management Agency will help foot the bill.

Ultimately, though, county taxpayers, and perhaps even Lahaina property owners themselves, will bear some cost for cleaning up the mess so clean water can once more flow through their taps.

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