Saving Maalaea Bay Is Maui County's Responsibility - Honolulu Civil Beat

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Peter W. Cannon

Peter W. Cannon is a fifth-generation local Maui boy.

Why does Maui County have an obligation to build wastewater infrastructure in Maalaea?

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The short answer is: The county created this problem and the county needs to fix it.

A little history is helpful in understanding.

In the 1970s, Maui Mayor Elmer Cravalho was promoting the development of tourism for Maui. The Kaanapali Resort, the first planned resort in the state of Hawaii, had just been completed by Amfac. And the concept of condominium ownership, now copied around the world, was literally being invented within Hawaii.

One may recall, Mayor Cravalho was famous for forcing developers to pay for infrastructure in order to secure permits to build. For example, if you want to build a hotel in Wailea, then you have to bring the fresh water pipes from the source to your property. If you want to build your hotel, then you also need to build a wastewater plant on your property.

But 50 years later, if the water pipe to the Wailea resorts breaks, do the hotels have to fix it? No, the county owns it, the hotels pay property taxes, and the county fixes it.

How about Maalaea?

Ruined Ecology

The original Maalaea community consisted of about a dozen homes and a store that were all connected to individual cesspools. Our family was one of the families living in Maalaea. There were also some vacant lots.

In late 1970, Maui County changed the zoning in Maalaea to allow condominium resorts to be constructed. My parents, and the other homeowners in Maalaea, were all charged property taxes on their home as if they had a hotel on their property. The County of Maui, through this zoning change, forced the homeowners to either sell their homes or develop a condominium in Maalaea. That is what happened.

Maalaea Harbor
Maalaea Harbor. The Maui County Council is considering a regional wastewater sewer system and treatment plant for the region. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2016

Developers soon took over the properties. Those who built the condominiums in Maalaea were required by Maui County to build an on-site wastewater plant that used 1970’s injection-well technology that processed the effluent and pumped it into the fresh water table.

This proved to be a big mistake. The nutrients from these permitted plants, together with unmitigated pathogens, ended up in the ocean to feed the algae that eventually took over and killed the reef, the limu, the shells, the opae, and the fish-spawning corals. These nutrients, and sedimentation from mauka, in 50 years, has ruined the ecology of Maalaea Bay. We are fishing and swimming in doo-doo soup.

Similar zoning changes in Kihei and in the Lahaina area created the development of Condominiums and other projects that required on-site injection well wastewater systems for a permit. However the county later recognized the problem of having developed areas with hundreds of individual cesspools and injection well systems.

We are fishing and swimming in doo-doo soup.

Damage to the ocean and the water table was evolving into an ecological disaster. So the county did the right thing and built regional sewer systems and wastewater plants for both the Kihei and Lahaina communities. Only Maalaea, currently holding 11 of the remaining 14 Underground Injection Control permits on Maui, has not been cleaned up by the county. The county holds the other three permits for Kahului, Lahaina and Kihei.

Maui County created a situation where homeowners were forced to either sell to developers or develop their home lots into condominiums through county zoning changes and property taxes. The developers were required by Maui County to build an on-site wastewater plant with only primary treatment at every single condominium in Maalaea. The county permitted these wastewater systems.

This was the county’s plan. The county is responsible for setting up this wastewater scheme in the first place. So now the homeowners in Maalaea, 50 years later, still have these legacy wastewater systems intact and they are now being told to fix their failing injection well systems. Yet we know that, because of the Supreme Court’s decision in the Lahaina case, the injection wells will all need to go. Any money put into improving an injection well system today will be lost.

The County of Maui created this problem. The County of Maui required these injection well systems the be built. The County of Maui permitted these mistakes. The County of Maui is culpable and needs to fix this. Government is responsible for the water and wastewater infrastructure in Maalaea in the same way that they were in Kihei and in Lahaina. These are the last of the injection wells of Maui located next to the ocean. This project is long overdue and it will restore health to Maalaea Bay.

So where do we stand today? The reef is near dead. Maalaea Bay is designated a 303(d) impaired body of water by the EPA. Maalaea Bay is a negatively impacted economic engine affecting all of Maui.

This is not just about the Maalaea community. This is about all of us who live, work and play on Maui.

Individual homeowners bought into the condominiums and still find themselves in the wastewater business with inferior 1970’s technology that needs to be condemned. Fifty years later, the developers are long gone, and the condominium owners in Maalaea have every right to say, “Maui County, you created this problem, and you need to fix it.”

Please, Maui County Council members, provide veto-proof support for the amendment to the county budget that provides for a regional wastewater sewer system and treatment plant for Maalaea, for all of Maui, and for Maalaea Bay.

To do nothing is unacceptable. Contact the council ASAP.

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About the Author

Peter W. Cannon

Peter W. Cannon is a fifth-generation local Maui boy.

Latest Comments (0)

Thanks for this report on Maalaea Bay from a 1st-hand observer. Coral cover historically was very high, 90% or better, but dropped like a stone when Maui Ocean Center went in and began pumping clean water into its bacteria-ridden aquariums and waste water out in continuous flow. Maui Ocean Center is toxic to Maalaea Bay and reef wildlife.

Robert · 5 months ago

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