As part of an ongoing discussion over the cost of the tourism industry on Maui, a council member is questioning whether resorts are paying their fair share for one of the island’s most precious resources: water.

Maui County locator map

Maui County Council Vice Chair Keani Rawlins-Fernandez asked officials during a Board of Water Supply meeting Thursday to look into raising water prices for some of Maui’s most egregious users — resorts.

When it comes to paying for the volume of water used, agricultural customers have long paid the lowest rates. But homeowners and general users — ranging from mom-and-pop shops to schools to luxury hotels — are charged at the same rate.

There’s an exception, however, for homeowners who use a lot of water. They can end up paying the county’s highest prices per gallon if they use more than 35,000 gallons per month, a policy meant to “encourage further conservation,” according to a recent water rate study.

There isn’t a separate category like that for businesses — including hotels — that use a lot of water.

“It didn’t feel right that families, who need the essential amount of water to survive, paid the same rate as hotels, which generate huge profits off our water,” Rawlins-Fernandez said.

The councilwoman proposed that water officials carve out a standalone class for hotels to encourage them to save water and address “perceived inequity” in Maui’s water system. In fiscal year 2020, which ended in June, resorts, many located in Kihei and Wailea, made up the majority of Maui’s 20 largest water customers, according to county documents.

Hotels are among Maui's largest water users.
A screenshot of a list of the Department of Water Supply’s biggest customers in fiscal year 2020

The Grand Wailea topped the list, using more than 172 million gallons that year. In a statement, the hotel said it’s “deeply committed to preserving Maui’s precious natural resources” and has invested $1 million into water conservation programs.

That comes out to nearly 500,000 gallons per day — the amount needed to supply 1,428 single-family homes, Rawlins-Fernandez told the water board.

Asking hotels to pay higher bills for water isn’t unheard of on Maui. While researching water rates, the council member came across a private water company serving Kapalua that has a separate category for hotels and motels. Those properties are billed $11.60 for every 1,000 gallons, nearly double the county’s highest rate of $5.85 per 1,000 gallons.

“It’s almost double what we charge … and they’re still operating the hotels on that side,” Rawlins-Fernandez said. “I think we’re the ones giving them a really huge discount at the expense of our community.”

Her proposal was just the first step in what could become a multiyear process to adjust the prices. Before taking effect, the council member said it would need to be vetted by water officials and voted into law by the County Council, plus closely examined by experts trained to set prices that governments charge for water.

Like many local governments, Maui County has for years hired a private consultant to take on the complicated data analysis needed to figure out what customers need to pay to cover the costs of running the water system. Right now, three main factors go into customers’ bills: the type of property, amount of water consumed, and the size of a property’s water meter, which is the device connecting the property to the water line that allows the county to measure usage.

All customers pay a fixed monthly charge ranging from $19.80 to $1,251 based on the size of their water meter. They also pay for the amount of water they use — anywhere from $2.05 to $5.85 for every 1,000 gallons for single-family homeowners and general customers. Homeowners who use more than 35,000 gallons per month, however, pay $6.55 per 1,000 gallons.

Maui County water rates
A screenshot of Maui County water rates from its recent water rate study

In a study published last year, the consultant hired by Maui County wrote that higher rates are supposed to encourage homeowners to conserve water and discourage “discretionary” outdoor water use. Charging higher amounts for general customers, the consultant wrote, could inadvertently penalize bigger operations — large businesses, for example, are likely to use more water than smaller businesses.

Jeffrey Pearson, the director of Maui’s Department of Water Supply, said during Thursday’s meeting that he wasn’t “going to show any reservations” about Rawlins-Fernandez’s proposal, telling her that he thinks “it’s great that you’re coming up with ideas and different ways of producing revenue and hopefully reducing use.”

Meanwhile, the director said, Maui’s water department is trying to find ways to help communities like Kihei and Wailea use more recycled water.

Last year, the debate over water restrictions on Maui made national headlines when only Upcountry residents were ordered to conserve water — or face $500 fines. Some Upcountry residents accused the county of favoring resort communities like Wailea, while county officials argued that they couldn’t have changed the situation because of the way Maui’s water system was originally built: The section of the system that serves Upcountry, which is more vulnerable to drought, is totally separate from those serving resort areas.

“I think that important water conversations are happening that are a long time coming,” Nalani Kaninau, the vice chair of the Board of Water Supply, said during the meeting. “It’s not to punish the egregious users, but I think they need to pay for the privilege of using and abusing our precious resource.”

Read the council member’s presentation below.

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by a grant from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

Support Civil Beat during the season of giving.

As a small nonprofit newsroom, our mission is powered by readers like you. But did you know that less than 1% of readers donate to Civil Beat?

Give today and support local journalism that helps to inform, empower and connect.

About the Author