The vote came after months of community outreach by the Board of Water Supply in a bid to prepare customers in advance.

The Honolulu Board of Water Supply approved water rate increases on Monday, setting into motion a five-year schedule that will raise consumer rates about 10% each year. 

Overall, monthly water bills are projected to increase by about 50% or more over the next five years. 

Specific increases will vary by individual ratepayer due to a complex system of user categories and pricing tiers. But generally, rates will go up 10% on Feb. 1; 10% on July 1; 9% on July 1, 2025, 8.5% on July 1, 2026; 8% on July 1, 2027; and 8% on July 1, 2028.

According to a BWS presentation, an average single-family household that uses 9,000 gallons of water each month will see their charge increase from $59.50 to $97.80.

Honolulu Board of Water Supply Chief Engineer Ernie Lau gave a presentation at Monday’s monthly BWS meeting on how the utility spends its money, making the argument that a substantial rate increase is necessary to cover expenses over the next five years. Mayor Rick Blangiardi watches from behind Lau. (Ben Angarone/Civil Beat/2023)

“Water is life,” BWS Chief Engineer Ernie Lau said during the utility’s monthly meeting. “The infrastructure it takes to deliver on average 145 million gallons a day to almost a million people on this island – it takes a lot of infrastructure.”

Funding for this infrastructure is limited. Unlike other departments, BWS has been financially independent from the city since its creation by the Legislature in 1929, with the idea that this limits political pressure for handling such a crucial service. 

This setup means that – despite speaking about residents’ financial hardship at the beginning of the meeting – Mayor Rick Blangiardi lacks the direct power to approve or reject the rate increases himself.

That power lies with the Board of Water Supply, which approved the plan on Monday.

Five members voted in favor of the rate increases, while one member, Gene Albano, abstained and said he felt too new to the board to vote on this issue. The vote came after months of community outreach about the plan in a bid to get feedback and prepare customers in advance.

BWS said the rate hikes were necessary because of the Red Hill water crisis, general inflation and changes in the way people use water. 

Honolulu Board of Water Supply Chief Engineer Ernie Lau watches board chair Naʻalehu Anthony as BWS announced a $1.2 billion claim against the Navy at a press conference last week. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Navy fuel storage tanks at Red Hill have leaked multiple times over the years, notably in November 2021 when thousands of gallons of fuel contaminated tap water for families around Pearl Harbor

BWS shut down a nearby civilian shaft as a precaution and is planning to make up for its lost supply by drilling new wells. It’s an expensive effort: in a slideshow presentation, BWS refers to budgeting about $399 million for new sources of water over the course of five years.

Last week, BWS announced a $1.2 billion tort claim it had filed against the Navy to pay for damages stemming from Red Hill. The claim was filed in October, and the Navy has six months to respond to it before BWS pursues federal litigation in court, Lau has said.

But while that military money would be helpful, BWS needs revenue now.

“I hope that the Feds are going to come through for us,” said board member Kapuaʻala Sproat, who tuned in to Monday’s meeting remotely. “But we can’t just wait.”

In addition, the coronavirus pandemic threw the board’s revenue stream out of whack.

Social distancing rules meant that many people stayed home rather than going out, so water usage shifted to residential areas. Because residences are charged less than nonresidences – like restaurants – this shift meant that BWS’ revenue stream went down. 

This is combined with higher costs due to inflation, increasing the price of electricity for BWS’ treatment plants and pumps that deliver water to houses on high mountain ridges. 

The Empire State, a Navy tanker, arrived in Pearl Harbor last month escorted by two tugs to dock and begin the de-fueling of the Red Hill tank farm. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Some testifiers opposed the rate hikes. Rep. Darius Kila, whose district along the Leeward coast includes Nanakuli and Maili, said he understands BWS’ needs but ultimately opposes increasing his constituents’ water bills. 

“My community lives along the shoreline. They live in these low-lying communities. And thus, they are paying for the water to go to the places and communities that they don’t have access to,” he said. 

BWS says it has been working to keep expenses low and to avoid passing them on to consumers by deferring nonurgent maintenance.

Actual net revenue this fiscal year is above what BWS had budgeted so far, thanks in part to lower-than-expected personnel expenses. 

But this silver lining reflects its own issue: earlier in the meeting, Lau referred to BWS as having about 200 job vacancies. It’s an issue pervasive across the city government.

“Mayor always reminds me: ‘You got to get those positions filled,’” he said.

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