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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, February 5, 2006

Lingle, Democrats feud over Ka'u well money

By Kevin Dayton
Advertiser Big Island Bureau

HILO, Hawai'i Efforts to drill a new well in Ka'u to provide clean drinking water for rural Big Island residents has erupted in an election-year furor, with Big Island Democrats accusing Gov. Linda Lingle's administration of delaying or blocking the project by imposing unreasonable new demands.

State Rep. Bob Herkes and Sen. Russell Kokubun complained Friday that Lingle has not released the $6 million to drill the well because she wants the county to provide "credits" in exchange for the money to offset the cost of water for about 19 state facilities on the Big Island.

Kokubun, D-2nd (S. Hilo, Puna, Ka'u), said in a written statement that Lingle's proposal is "unconscionable," and Herkes accused the governor of holding the well money "hostage."

Linda Smith, Lingle's senior policy adviser, said on Friday that Lingle has committed to releasing the money to drill the well but wants state taxpayers to get something in return.

State lawmakers last year approved $6 million to drill a production well and build a reservoir in Hawaiian Ocean View Estates, and to install a water main to Hawai'i Belt Road where residents and water-hauling trucks could go to collect drinking water.

There are no wells or water lines serving the area, which has nearly 6,000 residents living in a more than a half-dozen isolated subdivisions, said Loren Heck, chairman of the Big Island Water Board and an 18-year resident of Hawaiian Ocean View Estates.

Heck said the well project is badly needed because the area is the fastest-growing region on the Big Island, and residents now drive 40 miles roundtrip to Na'alehu to get drinking water.

"It's crucial to get a water source in the area," he said. "It's a poor community. Literally, there's a lot of people here who don't have the gas or the car to drive to get fresh water, so they're drinking (roof catchment) tank water," which can make them ill.

Herkes said the state traditionally has been responsible for developing new water sources, and said House lawyers believe Lingle has no authority to in effect amend the state budget to impose new requirements. Her choices are to either release the money or to withhold it, said Herkes, D-5th (Ka'u, S. Kona).

"We've never done this, and it's not allowed under the law," he said.

Quirino Antonio, deputy manager of the Hawai'i County Department of Water Supply, said the department rules don't allow the county to provide water credits to a developer in exchange for a water system built in an entirely different community.

It might be possible for the county to offer the state water commitments at the new well system in Ka'u, he said, but that won't help much, because there are no state facilities there.

But Smith said the county allowed subdivisions in communities with no water, and now state taxpayers are being asked to pay to fix the problem. "What we were looking for is a way in which we could work with the county to help offset some of the costs that the state has to pay for the water," she said.

Smith said those discussions are continuing, but "I think the governor has made her commitment that she will release the monies for the well."

Heck said the well project has been 10 years in the making, and is such a popular idea in Ka'u that the issue has long had political implications. Many residents turned against former Gov. Ben Cayetano years ago after Cayetano refused to release $1.25 million for a test well for the project.

Now, the growth in the area is so rapid, it is "scary," Heck said. On one lot after another, "there's a building going up; the squealing of the D-9s (bulldozers), that's just constant," he said.

Reach Kevin Dayton at kdayton@honoluluadvertiser.com.