Sewage rates could be on the rise


The Department of Environmental Management’s wastewater division is facing more than $11 million in repairs to its aging infrastructure and may need to consider a rate hike, Acting Director Dora Beck told Environmental Management Commission members Wednesday.

The county last raised rates in 1997, with stepped increases that ended in 2002. Hawaii County residents with a single-family residence using 9,000 gallons of water a month pay $27 a month.

“It’s important to manage the budget carefully, so you have enough for the next year,” Beck said.

But with revenues that haven’t changed in a decade, and infrastructure that’s only getting older, as well as deferred maintenance and repairs taking their toll on equipment, Beck said the county may need to consider the rate increase. The alternative, she said, would be for the county administration to provide a subsidy to the wastewater division through the general fund. The latter option is less likely, Beck said.

A rate increase “is probably going to be the harsh reality,” she said.

Wastewater infrastructure around the island could use repairs. In West Hawaii, the Kealakehe Wastewater Treatment Plant’s 30-inch gravity influent pipe liner is peeling away.

“It will obstruct flow and you’ll get stuff trapped behind it,” Beck said, explaining the problem.

The fix for that is estimated at $500,000.

The Wailuku Sewage Pump Station needs a permanent flood barrier — right now sandbags and plywood are being used instead — at a cost of about $30,000.

Other areas need bigger, more expensive repairs. At the Hilo Wastewater Treatment Plant, the digester cover replacement is expected to cost $8 million. Repairing the plant’s headworks channel concrete is another $2.5 million project.

Beck, formerly the wastewater division chief, told the commission in 2011 the department would need to consider a rate increase. She made the report after the division completed a draft study of the sewer rates. She declined at the time to provide possible rate increases.

Beck could not be reached after Wednesday’s meeting.

Use of the county’s sewage system has expanded significantly in the last decade, especially in Kona. Overall, Hilo and Kona have 39 percent more accounts now than in 2002, Beck said. Kona saw the highest increase in accounts: an 89 percent change from 2002 to 2012.

The county has six treatment plants, one each in Hilo, Honokaa, Papaikou, Kulaimano, Kapehu and Kealakehe, 16 pump stations, 100 miles of gravity mains and 11 miles of force mains, Beck said.

Beck and Solid Waste Division Chief Greg Goodale also provided updates on the organic waste diversion program. Beck said the council likely won’t vote on a resolution authorizing the department to enter into a contract to divert all organic waste from the landfills until at least next month.

Goodale said his department estimates about 41,000 tons of green waste are being diverted from the landfills right now, and with the diversion program, another 12,000 tons could be diverted annually. The county began collecting green waste in Hilo in 1995, and expanded the program to Kona in 2000. That year, the county collected about 5,700 tons of green waste islandwide.