Water Board gets action group report on North Kona water crisis

HILO — The water woes in North Kona have subsided, to a degree, but members of the Hawaii County Water Board explained it may be a while before they’re alleviated in full.

The North Kona Permitted Interaction Group — comprised of Water Board members, Department of Water Supply (DWS) employees and individuals from the private sector — convened in late 2017 to examine the root causes of the North Kona water crisis that saw as many as five of the system’s 13 deep wells simultaneously inoperative.


A report delivered by Chairman Craig Takamine Tuesday in Hilo at the Water Board’s monthly meeting offered a path forward. Vice Chairman William Boswell Jr., who was also a part of the interaction group, said while the progress made was significant, the results may not be immediately so.

“We can not go out there across the board and implement all these changes and make everything better. We can’t do it,” Boswell said. “You’d have to shut the whole system down and have bought tens of millions of dollars of equipment and retrofit everything immediately.”

“It’s a long road to turn this thing around.”

The greatest challenge

One of the notorious contributors to deep well pump and motor failure is backup equipment stored horizontally and rotated too infrequently. DWS suspects the practice significantly exacerbated the 2017 crisis.

The problem is, they’re still short a solution.

Takamine said the first idea was to store equipment with manufacturers on the mainland but the estimates received weren’t financially viable.

The price stretched to nearly $100,000 per pump and motor set for the year, said DWS Manager-Chief Engineer Keith Okamoto.

“We were dealt defeat by going through our procurement methods and allowing it to be a bid item that came back to us that was being submitted by a contractor,” Boswell said. “That’s where the fluctuations got out of control.”

Okamoto said DWS is currently attacking the procurement process in hopes of dealing directly with manufacturers to mitigate whatever markup the contractors heaped atop initial estimates. He added creating storage facilities on Hawaii Island, or even digging holes, would prove too costly a measure.

Currently, DWS is relegated to storing equipment horizontally in crates, but Okamoto said the department is able to rotate as needed.

Where to begin

DWS can implement some immediate measures beyond amending the procurement process. Those efforts begin with the Hualalai Deep Well, one of three North Kona water sources currently offline.

The well as previously constructed employed a pump and motor capable of producing roughly 1,050 gallons per minute (gpm). Okamoto said the department is shifting down to a 700 gpm operation. At future well sites, two 700 gpm wells will be installed whenever feasible to add not just reliability but also redundancy.

“We’re losing capacity, but we hope to gain in reliability,” Okamoto explained.

DWS is also planning to drill another well at Waiaha, the second of North Kona’s three downed water sources.

The department hasn’t abandoned hope that contractor Derrick’s Well Drilling and Pump Services LLC can modify its equipment to fish out deep well components it lost at Waiaha after a cable snapped last summer. However, DWS’s plans to drill a new well indicate the possibility of salvaging the current water source is precarious.

Contractors will also install 700 gpm equipment at a new well planned for North Kona, which is to be located mauka of Kamehameha School’s Keauhou lands.

Another immediate measure the department has undertaken involves contracting third parties to investigate well failures. Brown and Caldwell has been contracted to investigate failures at Hualalai, Honokohau, Keahuolu and Keopu deep wells in North Kona. The company is conducting power studies and will examine potential sources of failure, both electrical and mechanical.

DWS has contracted Ron Ho and Associates on an “as needed” basis to inspect teardowns of pumps and motors that prove defective.

Finally, power quality monitoring equipment (PQM) that allows the department to track and monitor electrical flow has been implemented at Palani, Honokohau, Keopu and Waiaha — all in North Kona. Installation is also scheduled for Keahuolu, Kalaoa, Hualalai and Halekii.

Power surges and other issues are suspected as frequent causes of deep well failure.

What’s to come

Boswell said tracking and identifying trends in power quality by replacing the existing legacy system, the Motorola MOSCAD, with a new SCADA system will prove a crucial step, allowing data to be read in real time.

“That’s when we’ll be modern,” he said. “That’s a big deal.”

Beyond power tracking, installation of PQM and contracting third parties to investigate failures, the action group identified three other key objectives — standardization of equipment, an asset management program and spare pump and motor inventory.

Equipment standardization deals not only with moving to two 700 gpm wells per future site, but also includes utilization of 20-inch diameter casing to allow flexibility for future equipment. Gyroscope alignments will also be done to see if non-submersible pumps and motors can be used at well sites.

Several other elements are involved in the process, but Takamine noted creating uniformity with wells built by developers is critical.

“What we’ed like to do moving forward is (specify) out exactly what we want and what we need, so that way we can kind of standardize everything as far as equipment goes and really make sure we have parts for any type of equipment that might break down in the future,” he said.

As far as asset management is concerned, Takamine said the goal is simple — schedule maintenance ahead of being forced to fix failed equipment.

“The theory that if you just run it until it breaks is contrary to asset management,” Boswell said. “You’re supposed to be replacing (parts) beginning to wear out … early enough that they never lose their efficiency.”

The cost

Okamoto said improvements won’t be cheap, adding the cost may affect departmental resources but won’t impact policy. Rates will increase incrementally over the next two years, but those increases were determined several years ago by a rate study.

“A lot of people ask us about rates, but as far as what we’re going through right now, the rates are not affected,” he explained.

Okamoto added upcoming budgets and the next rate study in 2020 may see an impact from immediate spending. If anything will be affected in the nearer term, though, it will be upcoming CIP projects that may need to be postponed.


The department’s CIP budget is slated at $96,200,000 for fiscal years 2019-23 and sets aside $3 million annually for repairs.

“We’re always monitoring for funds,” Okamoto said. “We’re still in a good place.”

  1. KonaDude March 28, 2018 3:19 am

    “examine potential sources of failure” This needs to include human errors as well, no pun intended. Spare pumps won’t do any good if you aren’t storing and maintaining them correctly. The circus continues!!

  2. Buds4All March 28, 2018 4:07 am

    The “crisis” is the people running it!

  3. Colin12345 March 28, 2018 7:38 am

    Nice to have a good, constructive, publicly available report on something so critical to us all. Huge changes in management and procurement are now clearly down in black-and-white at least as direction. Bad news that it will take years (I’d guess 4-5) for this to get settled back down into a reliable new system. Also bad news is the reported view of the Department head that because of the costs to fix this mess, they’re cutting back on capital improvement projects!

    The population is growing in urban-designated areas that need new and expanded water sources, reservoirs and supply lines – North Kona in particular, the source of much of the money that pays for those County bond floats in the first place. Cutting back on supplying that infrastructure will strangle growth where it’s wanted and force more illegal apartments as people do what they have to do to find a place a live! Starving the very source of tax revenue that will pay for the bonds to create that payback!

    I hope the Water Commission corrects the Department’s thinking on that, and makes the Department proceed with their MISSION of SUPPLYING WATER where growth is supposed to be occurring, and in ADVANCE of that demand for water, not begrudgingly years later, and waiting for developers to track down well sites and do it for them. Better to raise water rates now than starve a growing community of the resources it needs to live right and live well.

  4. Bigislandfarmer March 28, 2018 7:50 am

    Harry Kim should be recalled based on this alone. Total incompetence. He’s at least capable of shutting down all County facilities because some drizzle is heading towards the island.

  5. metalman808 March 28, 2018 8:22 am

    Well at least they had extra money for raises.

  6. paul March 28, 2018 3:49 pm

    this whole situation is such BS…so full of incompetence,corruption,waste,more corruption,stupidity….what more can I say

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


By participating in online discussions you acknowledge that you have agreed to the Star-Advertiser's TERMS OF SERVICE. An insightful discussion of ideas and viewpoints is encouraged, but comments must be civil and in good taste, with no personal attacks. If your comments are inappropriate, you may be banned from posting. To report comments that you believe do not follow our guidelines, email hawaiiwarriorworld@staradvertiser.com.