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A serious and lingering water shortage in North Kona came to a new head earlier this month with the failure of a fifth county well — leaving residents in the west side’s population center confused, angry and wondering when the problem is going to get a real fix.
Last week, the crises lessened, but just barely as crews scrambled to avoid water shutoffs.
With water use restricted to essentials like drinking, cooking and basic sanitation, thousands of people from Keauhou to Keahole and Honalo to Makalei were shortening their showers, flushing less often and letting yards go brown as the county issued an emergency restriction.
And faced with shutoffs in service if they didn’t comply, they weren’t holding back the social media posts and calls to lawmakers questioning how the Department of Water Supply could have let things get this bad.
Contractors had brought in a second crew from off island to shorten repair times on the wells, two of which have been out of commission for more than a year. They brought the Keahuolu Deepwell back on line with a replacement pump and motor during the July 4th holiday, easing some of the strain on the system. But the repair timeline for the other four sources stretches into winter.
North Kona has been under a 25 percent mandatory water use reduction since January as work continued on the Hualalai, Palani, Keopu and Waiaha deepwells.
Water Supply manager Keith Okamoto acknowledged to Civil Beat that the overlapping repairs of four wells — then the failure of the Keahuolu well as it churned away to fill the gap in supply — could hardly have had worse timing.
Long, nightmarish repairs are nothing new to Hawaii County wells, some of which are the deepest in the state, pulling water from 1,500 feet down. The Hualalai Deepwell has blinked in and out of service since 2012, suffering repeated equipment failures that baffled contractors and water managers.
Faced with recurring problems that included faulty check valves, a failed transformer and electrical damage, the county endured delays of more than two years and at least an eightfold cost overrun. DWS eventually decided to simply replace virtually every working part in the well.
It functioned from October 2015 to April 2016 before failing again. The well has been out of service since, and repairs are expected to wrap up in November.
The Keahuolu well, which crashed a couple of weeks ago, had been operational for only five months following repairs that concluded at the end of January. A spare pump and motor is currently being installed.
The Keopu well is slated to be back online in December, following replacement of pump, motor, column pipe, check valves and other components. It went offline in February.
Similar fixes are in the works for the Palani well, scheduled for completion in late October after being offline since May of 2016.
Replacement of a 17-foot long pump, 700 horsepower motor and other repairs at the Waiaha Deepwell will wrap up at the end of this month, according to DWS estimates. Waiaha ceased functioning in mid-January.
The DWS is taking steps to prevent these mechanical “perfect storms” from hitting in the future. The department has some spare pumping equipment in stock, but is ordering more. The department has put a bid out for a replacement pump and motor for the Honokohau well, its largest. It is also installing devices to measure pump runtimes and electrical input so maintenance can be planned in advance.
New variable frequency drives — which adjust pumping rates to demand — will help extend equipment life, according to DWS.
“We still need to be better at identifying which pumps are likely to go out sometime in the near future, and be well ahead of the game,” Okamoto said. “I’m sure we could do better tracking pump hours and power quality.”
Each well is unique and the equipment must be custom built to suit the location. The pump and motor systems are fabricated to specifications on the mainland, then shipped over to be installed by Beylik Drilling and Pump Service or Derrick’s Well Drilling and Pump Services, the two contractors which do the majority of this work for the county.
Because each pumping system has to be tailored to elevation, depth of the water source, pumping capacity, electrical input and other factors, they can’t easily be swapped between sites, according to the county.
State Sen. Josh Green of Kona said he’s gotten hundreds of calls, texts and social media messages from unhappy constituents. The failure of the Keahuolu well prompted the lawmaker to ask Gov. David Ige for an emergency declaration late last week.
Green said he has not yet had a conversation with the governor, but asked for the declaration to highlight the potential for catastrophe.
“Some of the wells are months away from repair,” Green said. “I’m worried about the probability that new wells will break. They need to get out ahead of it. This is no time to slow-play the repairs.”
The water department is pulling from wells in South Kona to fill the void, pushing the water north. But the transmission system has limits. If a sixth well went down, rotating shutoffs would become necessary, Okamoto said.
The DWS is watching for lack of compliance with restrictions. Residents appeared to largely ignore 25 percent reduction requests going back to January, according to metering data.
But when the county issued a plea for compliance in mid-June, the problem hit the spotlight. The county doesn’t yet have hard metering data, but the simple fact that the system has been able to hold up to use indicates people are now doing their part to cut back, Okamoto said.
For now, no one is without water and shutoffs have not been necessary. The county has placed a water tanker on Hina Lani Street in case there is a disruption in service, but the tanker has gotten little use so far.
Ann Goody runs the Three Ring Ranch Exotic Animal Sanctuary near Kailua View Estates. She said she and a half dozen other adults in the household have been shortening showers, taking laundry to town and struggling to make sure they meet the basic water needs of her animals.
Goody wondered why DWS doesn’t have spare systems in place so it can rapidly deal with breakdowns.
“We collect rooftop rain for the bison pool, use gray water for veggie plants, eliminated irrigation for trees, lost one lychee so far. Three others are in poor shape,” she said. “We have been cutting back for all of the time since they asked.”