Longtime effort by local government to buy Wailuku Water Co.’s water delivery system seems to have dried up.
Wailuku Water Company tunnel. Courtesy photo.
Na Wai ‘Eha — or the “Four Great Waters” of Waiheʻe River, Waiehu Stream, Wailuku River and Waikapū Stream — provides about 70% of county drinking water to Maui residents, much of which is delivered via Wailuku Water Co.’s water system.
For years, the possible acquisition signaled hope that a private, plantation-era system could be transformed into a public utility.
The sale could have been a historic move, setting the stage for more complicated water delivery systems to be acquired and managed by local government.
On Thursday, though, Maui County Managing Director Sandy Baz said an official county offer of $1.5 million for the water delivery system was rejected by Wailuku Water Co.
And while money is allocated for the acquisition in this year’s budget, no money has been set aside for the next fiscal year, added Baz, who spoke during Thursday’s county Board of Water Supply meeting.
“If Trust for Public Land can acquire then transfer to us, that’s one of the best options moving forward at this point,” Baz said.
However, Wailuku Water Co. President Avery Chumbley said the county didn’t have enough focus or will to make the deal happen.
“They offered a low-ball price then asked for one-third of the offer to be reduced based on improvements they thought needed to be done,” he told Maui Now. “Get serious, you guys.”
“I would still be willing to sell it to them,” Chumbley added. “But they have to be focused and willing to do a transaction that works for both parties.” The company was in talks with nonprofit Trust For Public Lands and state Department of Land and Natural Resources Division of Forestry and Wildlife officials for several months, trying to find a deal where the state would buy the watershed lands and the county would take over the water system, Chumbley said.
“The county just never really put together a team or made an investment of time and focus to this issue,” he said. “They would say, ‘Yeah, we want to buy it, we want to do it,’ and nothing would happen.” Pointing to losses, Wailuku Water Co. has sought for about two decades to sell its water delivery system, along with nearly 9,000 acres of Na Wai ‘Eha watershed land.
Under the Arakawa administration, the county had considered buying the company’s assets, including the water delivery system and the land, for $9.5 million.
Over the years, the state had mulled purchasing just the watershed land. Money was appropriated, then it evaporated when the acquisition didn’t go through. All the while, the integrity of the system has been questioned, and county officials have said they hesitate to buy — sight-unseen — an old, complicated system. Chumbley at various meetings has countered those claims, saying that the system is reliable and functional, but just needs improvements to bring it to a 21st century standard.
Meanwhile, Hui o Na Wai ‘Eha, a local nonprofit that advocates for the protection of the four waterways, has supported the sale.
Hui president Hōkūao Pellegrino said Thursday that the group still backs the county and/or state acquisition of Wailuku Water Co. But the fact that the possible sale has stalled over three administrations is “super disappointing,” he added.
“It’s as if there is no political will anymore,” Pellegrino said in a text. Baz said the county still backs public acquisition of Wailuku Water Co.’s system.
“We’re still hopeful that an agreement can be made and still believe it’s in the best interest of our community to have this be in the public’s hands,” he told Maui Now.
By Kehaulani Cerizo
May 20, 2022