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Editorial: Faith in DWS lost after latest misstep

November 3, 2017 - 10:56am

It’s been a year of gaffes for the Department of Water Supply — the department’s latest misstep illustrating perfectly how it just can’t seem to get its arms around West Hawaii’s deep well problems.

For all of 2017, the leeward side has been under water restriction advisories to varying degrees because of well malfunctions. At its peak, five of Kona’s 13 wells have been down. That peak has been summited now on three separate occasions.

The most recent came in mid-October when two more deep wells failed, including the deep well at Hualalai, which had finally started pumping again only days before.

Except very few people knew because the public was left in the dark. On purpose.

According to Keith Okamoto, DWS manager-chief engineer, it was because the department deemed notifying the public as unnecessary. The department said it didn’t want to alarm people. Also, it knew the Honokohau well was expected to return to service, so it could gut it out for a few days. It was an in-house decision Mayor Harry Kim said he didn’t agree with, but signed off on.

It wasn’t until the end of the month that the department shared that information with a reporter who asked about the status of the wells. It issued an end-of-the-day press release at 4 p.m., which stated four wells were still down and water restrictions were still in place.

It’s just been that kind of year for the department.

The mayor and department should know by now that public relations is a big part of this. From a PR standpoint, staying silent was a terrible look. It’s the public’s water, and they’re being asked to conserve it. They should know how things are proceeding even if it means the department is going to take a verbal pounding because the information they’re sharing is a description of yet another setback.

It appears DWS, in battered syndrome fashion, wanted to duck criticism. It’s understandable, considering the well failures were around the time of the Ironman World Championship. But this crisis is too serious for personal feelings, especially when the public’s trust in the department was hanging by a thread in the first place.

And what’s worse? The public screaming incompetence? Or the public screaming cover-up? What’s easier to forgive, mistakes or perceived deception?

We’re at the point where 2017 will define DWS for years to come. The year will forever be linked to the department’s leadership and its perceived dishonesty. Whether the silence was an attempt to duck criticism or not matters little now.

Perception is reality, in the practical sense of the word. And thus the reality is that Hawaii Island has lost faith in those who manage its most precious resource — its water. That begs the question, what now must be done?

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