The county water department has fallen woefully behind while shuffling through six managers in eight years.

Kauai is decades behind on replacing untold miles of century-old pipes responsible for delivering drinking water to faucets.


The county water agency has never adopted a program to systematically upgrade its aging infrastructure. Instead, crews wait for a valve to break or a pipe to burst and then rush out to fix it. 

Staff and funding shortages have long roiled the Garden Isle’s water system, putting the agency in charge of it woefully behind on achieving its goals.

The agency’s 2020 water plan, a seminal document published in 2001 that maps out dire infrastructure fixes, is still 60% unfinished. It’s now so out of date that Kauai Water Department manager Joseph Tait, who took the agency’s helm in November 2021, has thrown it out in favor of starting over.

“We have identified about $300 million worth of infrastructure needs,” said Tait, who guides an agency with a $32 million budget primarily funded by water sales.

“For an island this size, that might as well be $300 billion,” he said “We just don’t have the population and the water revenue to do all of that. Even if we had the money, we don’t have the staff to do the work.”

Kauai Department of Water manager Joe Tait says even if his office had the money to fix aging infrastructure, it doesn’t have the staff. (Brittany Lyte/Civil Beat/2023)

The water utility’s poor performance — and its ability to now turn itself around — is vital to what is perhaps the island’s most far-reaching problem: An acute shortage of affordable housing that’s forcing residents to leave the island for better housing prospects and higher wages.

The exodus is blatant at banks, schools, restaurants, hotels and doctor’s offices that are grappling with staffing shortages.

There are many challenges holding up affordable housing development. One of them is the inability to deliver drinking water to certain parts of the island due to a lack of infrastructure. Although the agency has connected water service to four new affordable housing developments in the last two years, there are plenty of other planned developments that await a plan for water delivery.

Yet as Tait works to expand the system, he faces a number of stumbling blocks.

The stretched-thin water department has cycled through six managers in eight years. An absence of steady leadership has prompted the agency’s four division heads to work in silos with little attention paid to the bigger picture.

But Tait said he does not plan on going anywhere. The former executive vice president of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California — the nation’s largest supplier of treated water — said he’s accustomed to overhauling underperforming programs and divisions. Over a 30-year career, he’s managed water programs from Anchorage to Honolulu.

“This is a complete rebuild and I knew that walking in,” Tait said. “It’s like when a sports team gets a new coach and starts changing players.”

At a recent Kauai County Council meeting, Tait detailed the challenges facing the beleaguered department, prompting Council Chairman Mel Rapozo to call on Gov. Josh Green to invest more money in the state’s water systems.

“We hear the cliches all the time, ‘water is the piko,’ ‘water is life,’ ‘without water, we have nothing,’ and it’s true,” Rapozo said. “You just don’t have the resources, you don’t have the time, you don’t have the money. You physically cannot get it done.”

Water Department workers inspect and repair a damaged pipe that provides water to homes and businesses from the water main. (Courtesy: Kauai Department of Water/2023)

But Tait is adamant that he’s making progress. Since he took over the agency’s top job less than two years ago, he said he’s cleaned up personnel issues and installed all new managers. Now his sights are set on filling job vacancies and seeking federal dollars to fund the island’s major infrastructure needs.

The agency, which has never had a grant writer, has not tried to rope in federal funding, according to Tait. But going after federal grants is his bread and butter. And he said he believes it’s the only way for the agency to meet Mayor Derek Kawakami’s aggressive affordable housing goals.

“The mayor made it really clear to me when I got here that our number one objective is affordable housing,” Tait said. “Now, affordable housing requires water. And we don’t have water on parts of the island where we need to grow affordable housing. To get the water where we need it, it’s going to cost a significant amount of money.”

Kawakami said in a statement that he trusts Tait, as he overhauls the department, to keep the island’s best interests at heart.

“Water is essential to the success of our housing initiatives and we will continue to work together with the department to find solutions that benefit our community and the future of our island,” Kawakami said.

The agency is about eight months away from publishing its first-ever water system investment plan. It will include a full assessment of the current state of the water system and an account of the work that needs to be done to bring the system up to par to meet the island’s needs. 

The plan will also include an expert opinion on how much the county should raise water rates.

The rates have remained flat for the last 10 years. But the department is poised to request a rate increase in the next year or two, Tait said.

Ratepayers can’t be asked to cover all the expenses associated with infrastructure expansion and improvement, Tait said. That’s why he’s counting on securing “a tremendous amount of money” from federal grants in the coming years. 

“I do not believe that the water department can be successful in replacing outdated infrastructure without it,” Tait said.

Kauai Water Department crews excavate and perform emergency repairs on a water main in Lihue. (Courtesy: Kauai Department of Water/2023)

Meanwhile, staff can’t keep up with a mounting workload. The department is hiring and, in the past two months, has increased its payroll by 15%, up to 92 employees. Nearly a quarter of the agency’s 119 positions remain vacant. 

Notably, the agency’s engineering division has only one engineer. It needs at least five to properly function, Tait said.

The biggest challenge to recruitment is low pay coupled with the island’s high cost of living.

The salary for the water department’s top civil engineer is $86,000, whereas the same job on Oahu pays roughly $125,000, according to Tait. The starting salary for an engineer is $51,000. 

Jim Edmonds, founder of the nonprofit affordable housing developer PAL Kauai, said staffing shortages at the water department have historically drawn out the already lengthy process of permitting new developments. The group worked with the department in October 2021 to secure approvals for 11 water meters on a 1.8-acre Kilauea property that it purchased for $1.1 million.

The property, where PAL Kauai plans to develop 11 affordable housing units, previously did not have access to the county drinking water system.

“The Department of Water has been so difficult to deal with for so long, and Joe is making noticeable improvements,” Edmonds said. “But in order to make changes, he’s having to bring people in from the mainland to fill jobs. And when you bring people in from the mainland, they’re new to our systems and they’re new to how things get done here. They also need housing that they can afford.”

As the department struggles to fill vacancies, Tait said he’s petitioning the county to raise pay. The Kauai water manager is also tapping into new relationships with other neighbor island water department heads, hoping to find a way that the agencies can work together to solve the problem of low wages leading employees to quit.

Tait also wants to start an apprenticeship and internship program to get a head start on recruiting and training Kauai’s next generation of water managers.

“I get depressed when I hear that folks’ kids all have to go to the mainland for college,” Tait said. “If I can start up an apprenticeship program and an internship program, then those kids can grow up with STEM programs that we’ve never had here. And that means they can get the training they need right here to get professional jobs.”

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