Current of water problems continues

  • A water tank serves residents in Alii Heights. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

  • Palmer Vaughn power-washes his driveway in Alii Heights. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

KAILUA-KONA — Several residents at the Alii Heights subdivision in North Kona dealt with more than downed deep wells and mandatory water restrictions during the Hawaii County Department of Water Supply’s tumultuous year.

They were cut off from their water, but it didn’t have anything to do with the departmental breakdowns that plagued the rest of the district.

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On three separate occasions in 2017 — June 20, Oct. 26, and Dec. 15 — power glitches at the Kahaluu Shaft left the Kahaluu Shaft tank, which supplies approximately 213 accounts throughout Alii Heights, low on water. This resulted in dry taps for some homeowners there that persisted for several hours. Not all of the 213 accounts were affected.

The Kahaluu Shaft services areas along Queen Kaahumanu Highway and Alii Drive.

But the glitches aren’t related to the department’s other problems.

DWS said the issues with the Kahaluu Shaft tank are not connected to deep well failures that affected North Kona for nearly all of 2017 and necessitated water restrictions of varying degrees lasting for 362 consecutive days.

“On several occasions, there was a temporary loss of power at the Kahaluu Shaft and these disruptions were not due to the ongoing well repairs,” said DWS spokesperson Kaiulani Matsumoto.

Water problems atop water problems

Some Alii Heights residents remain irked by what they say is incomplete information circulated by DWS during last year’s water crisis, as well as by a lack of departmental responsiveness to their concerns.

“My main concern was that (DWS) was saying no one had lost water during the problems and that really wasn’t true, even though it was from a different cause (than deep well failures),” said resident Bob Smith.

Smith, whose property was impacted by the water disruptions, added that while losing water service for a handful of hours on a few occasions paled in comparison to the inconvenience of a months-long halt on all non-commercial irrigation, he was displeased with the department’s approach to customer service.

He said he sent his original correspondence twice, waiting weeks, if not months, before he heard back. Smith said considering the other problems DWS was having, he felt the department should have been more responsive.

Chris Krueger, another resident of Alii Heights, said she’s also had issues with DWS responsiveness.

When asked about the department’s response policies and customer complaints, Matsumoto wrote “The Department strives to provide timely responses to inquiries as appropriate.”

There was also a discrepancy between DWS and Alii Heights residents as to the length of service disruptions. The department said the June outage lasted two to three hours while pumps were restarted, while the disruptions in October and December lasted four to five hours each.

Krueger said based on her experience and speaking to her neighbors, the December disruption was at least twice that long.

“This happens a few times a year, and (in December) we had no water for 11 hours that I’m aware of,” Krueger said. “This is affecting our neighborhood. We need to get to the bottom of this and fix it.”

Krueger and others noted that beyond service disruptions, they’ve also long dealt with water pressure issues.

DWS acknowledged these problems, saying the department has made “several adjustments” like “modifying the controls to several tanks, as well as the Palani booster station” to service a handful of problem accounts near the top of Alii Heights.

Causes for the neighborhood problem

DWS said the catalysts for each disruption were power losses or glitches that can result from several sources, among them bad weather, car accidents or falling trees. Subsequent electrical failures linked to power shortages or equipment failure due to age or other factors can cause tanks to temporarily shut down as water stores are depleted through regular usage.

“A prolonged power outage would result in the inability to run the wells at the Kahaluu Shaft, thus resulting in the inability to refill the Kahaluu Shaft tank,” Matsumoto said.

DWS explained a power glitch was the culprit in June. Lightning-related power glitches caused the disruptions in October and due to prolonged power outages required a manual reset by an electrician.

The December incident, the department said, was also due to a power outage, as well as a malfunctioning low-level alarm meant to alert DWS to pending water availability issues.

“The backup system, or auto-dialer, is primarily activated by low tank levels and/or power failures,” Matsumoto explained. “This alarm relies on HELCO power and works using the telephone system. During the December disruption, battery back-up (UPS) for the alarm was damaged and failed.”

DWS said at no point did the Kahaluu Shaft tank level dip to a point that the required fire flow, or water available to fight potential fires, was unavailable.

Clean water?

After one of the disruptions, Krueger said one of her neighbors spoke of experiencing tap water that appeared gray in appearance following the December service disruption.

It left the question, was something else wrong with their water supply?

Michael Miyahira, engineering section supervisor with the Hawaii Safe Drinking Water Branch, said likely not.

He said it’s an industry standard to flush water lines and test for line breaks after a service disruption. But, he added, it’s not “an explicit requirement” of the Hawaii Department of Health.

The purpose of flushing is to use higher chlorine residual to remove silt or debris that may have settled in a line and eliminate any bacteriological contaminants.

The concern is a water line break that could have allowed a contaminant to enter the system, but DWS said no such break occurred as the Alii Heights disruptions were connected to power glitches and electrical issues.

“Water lines were not contaminated during these disruption, as there was no opportunity for contamination,” Matsumoto said. “The wells were off for a period of time but the entire system, including disinfection, was fully functional as soon as the wells went back online.”

Miyahira said the milky water could mean a lot of things.

“(Gray water) could indicate several things, and not necessarily from a recent water line break: a cross connection with their on-site irrigation, drain or sewer system; rust particles could have dislodged from a water heater or old pipelines in the house; or yes, possibly from a nearby water line break,” Miyahira said.

Matsumoto said because there was no water line break and no opportunity for contamination, the most likely explanation for any gray water would be air trapped in the system due to the service disruption, leading to a temporary appearance of water as “gray or milky.”

Lingering frustration

Still, regardless of explanations, recent events leave neighbors unsatisfied.

Krueger said the continuous nature of the service disruptions has left her with a sense of unease, while Smith said the disruptions were less of a concern to him than the department’s overarching problems in the last year.

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Palmer Vaughn, a retired engineer and Alii Heights resident for the last five years, agreed with Smith.

“What is more bothersome is the water issue with the pumps, which meant no irrigation,” Vaughn said. “All these houses rely on irrigation. It’s just fortunate we had a lot of rain during that time because that was really bothersome.”