Upcountry Maui water quality concerns persist despite Zone 1 clearance
While authorities now say some of the water in Upcountry Maui is safe to use, many residents have not had usable tap water for more than a month. And some fires in the area are still burning.
As of 7 p.m. on Sept. 12, the Maui County Department of Water Supply announced that the Unsafe Water Advisory for the Upper Kula water system had been amended to remove Zone 1 from the affected area.
Water serving homes and buildings in Zone 1, which represents a majority of the previous water advisory area, has been determined to be safe for unrestricted use.
Zones 2 through 5 are still considered unsafe to use. Maui County says this determination is based on the flow of water through the system and the fire-impacted areas, as well as which areas experienced a loss of pressure during the fires.
The structures that were destroyed or damaged by the fire were isolated by closing off valves, and their water meters removed, to ensure that the potential for contamination was minimal, according to the county Department of Water Supply.
Although lead was detected at fire hydrants along the system after the first draw's samples, subsequent flush samples found no lead levels above the federal action level, as of Sept. 12.
Living without safe water
Despite Zone 1 being declared safe, residents have had to live without usable water for more than a month since the fires broke out on Aug. 8.
Joel Winicki is a farmer from Olinda who’s been struggling with crop damage as well as water quality issues.
“We haven't had clean water for I think just over a month now, so I haven't showered at home,” he said. “We can't cook with the water. You can't even boil it. I have to water the plants with it, even though I don't want to, because if I don't, they'll die."
"I've got a bunch of cases of bottled water. That's what we use to brush our teeth. That's what we use to cook with. That's what we use to drink," Winicki said.
Kula resident Valerie Spalding said it’s hard to complain when she knows her situation isn’t as bad as what others are experiencing, pointing to fellow upcountry residents who lost their homes and the devastating losses faced by the Lāhainā community.
Still, the past month has been challenging.
“We have water but we can’t use it for anything,” Spalding said. “I have three horses so I’m hauling 50 gallons a day.”
Because there’s a limit on water from potable water tankers, she buys bottled water for herself.
One of her neighbors broke out in a severe rash from showering in the water. Other neighbors have had to move out.
“It’s like camping out in your home,” she said. “People are wanting to share, you know, 'come and take a shower at our house.' But it's getting old, you know, like you're using up your friends here, going to their house with your laundry and your shower.”
“You can't just forget about us”
Olinda resident Nina Rivers said official communication has been lacking. She feels residents have been left to investigate on their own and decide what is safe for their family. Her home has been in the clear for water quality, but she said communication has been far from clear.
“You can't just forget about us,” she said of her area. “You included us in the advisory [initially after the fires] and then you left us out. But technically we're on the same system, so that wouldn't make sense. Like, how would we not be affected? But there just was no communication about it.”
Zones 2, 3, 4 and 5 on the Upper Kula water system remain unsafe, as a precautionary measure due to the unknown impacts of the wildfires in the area, according to Maui County.
Some structures in the Upper Kula water system were destroyed by the fire, and some areas in the water system lost pressure. These conditions may have caused harmful contaminants, including benzene and other volatile organic chemicals, to enter the water system, and officials are still evaluating the water safety in these areas.
This week, the state Department of Health announced toluene has been detected for the first time in water samples collected at Upper Kula Treatment Plant. The trace amounts of toluene, which is used in industrial feed and as a solvent, are well below state and federal limits for safety. But its presence does indicate the wildfire’s impacts to surface water.
Currently, water samples must be sent to the continental U.S. for testing, creating further delays.
And, fires are still burning in Upcountry Maui. The DLNR’s Division of Forestry and Wildlife has continued to patrol the area daily, putting out hot spots.
Chris Chow is a DLNR forester born and raised on Maui. He says he’s never seen the area this dry.
“A lot of it is just burning roots underground, we just continue to shoot water and continue to dig it out until we can call this 100 percent contained,” said Chow.
“I honestly thought that by maybe the second or third week, it would all be contained but as I’m learning throughout this month, fires can continue to burn up to two months, this place will continue to be hot, we’ll find stuff probably down the road," he said.
Click here to view the Zone Map where residents can search for their address.