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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, February 13, 2010

Drought costing Big Isle residents who depend on rain

By Peter Sur
Hawaii Tribune-Herald

PAHOA, Hawaii -- About one out of three homes on the Big Island is on rainwater catchment, and during times of widespread drought, residents are feeling the strain.

Friday in Puna, water haulers have been busy as ever the last few weeks, delivering 4,000-gallon loads at $130 a haul to customers throughout the district. Haulers are responding to orders from the Hamakua coast to Kaumana and throughout Puna, or residents are filling up their own portable tanks in the back of their cars and trucks.

It takes 16 minutes for William Julian's 4,300-gallon truck to fill with water at the county's spigot station.

"Last year we took a beating," as rain was plentiful, he said. These days, he has orders around the clock. Recent rains in the district have reduced the waiting period from three days to one, but the workload for the haulers has never diminished.

"They force us to work long hours," said Julian, owner of Julian Water Service. "It's (the) residents who are so demanding because no rain, and we can only do so much a day. And sometimes we turn down and refer to the other haulers."

"We run this truck long hours," he said, gesturing to the vehicle. He averages 75 to 90 minutes on deliveries, then returns to the spigot, just north of the Pahoa Fire Station.

"If I work 12 hours, I can average between 9 and 10 loads" a day, he said.

Within a few minutes, the tank was filled to the brim and surplus water started running down the sides of Julian's truck. He shut the water off. What happens when Puna gets its usual dousing of rain?

"I'm lucky I got some other job," Julian said, as he prepared to jump in the cab and drive to a site. "If no other job, then problem."

Nandine Richardson of Iron Horse Trucking was filling up for a delivery in Leilani Estates. Business was "off and on," he said.

"A lot of people, they see a little bit of rain; they try waiting it out and they end up nearly empty," he said. "Lot of homes we go, the tanks are really low. But we try to accommodate them as much as we can."

The tank fills up, and Richardson takes off for Leilani Estates. He navigates his truck through the lower Puna subdivision and reverses it through a winding driveway off Kahukai Street to the 7,800-gallon tank sitting next to a bed-and-breakfast home.

The homeowner's son, Mike Long, said the tank was half full and not in any danger of running dry. But with six guests arriving later in the day and questionable water conservation habits, the family wanted to be sure the guests didn't run dry.

Richardson took out an old hose, riddled with leaks and patched with duct tape, and attached it to the home's tank. Richardson says the entire truck load can empty in four to eight minutes, meaning he can pump between 5.5 and 8.3 gallons a second.

Water haulers' rates may vary by the distance from the spigot, but they are all similar -- $130 to $135 per load. That's too much for many of the residents who line up on the other side of the spigot station, carrying gallon water jugs, trash cans, and plastic containers of all sizes.

Won Soon Kim of Hawaiian Paradise Park had filled up his 350-gallon tank once Friday and was going back for seconds.

It takes about half an hour for the trailer-mounted tank to fill with water, which will be used as a stopgap measure until the 6,000-gallon tank load that he ordered through his nephew comes through.

Two or three years ago, the haulers charged $85 per tank for the water they buy from Hawaii County and then deliver to homes. Since then, the rate has risen some 50 percent.

"Not enough rain," said Kim, who passed the time stretching. "Not enough praying for rain."