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Quick Look: It Will Be Years Before Clean Water Is Restored In Lahaina -Civil Beat, Nov. 7, 2023

Updated: Jan 21

[See the original story here]

The Civil Beat article details the severe aftermath of the August fires in Lahaina, Maui, focusing on the extensive contamination of the drinking water system and the challenges in restoring clean water to the area. The fires melted pipes, introducing toxic chemicals like benzene into the water system. This has initiated a complex, property-by-property testing process to gauge the extent of contamination.

"One of the main concerns is volatile organic compounds which tend to migrate from liquids and stick to solids, like the walls of pipes. These so-called VOCs include substances known to make people sick like acetone, benzene, naphthalene, styrene, toluene and xylene."

Officials estimate that restoring the water system could take two to three years and cost around $80 million. This prolonged timeline poses a significant burden on Lahaina families, who face the dual financial strain of paying mortgages on their destroyed properties while also renting elsewhere, raising concerns about potential bankruptcies, especially among long-term residents.

The article also discusses the technical and regulatory complexities involved in assessing and addressing the water system contamination. The depressurization of the system during the fire created a vacuum effect, drawing contaminants into the pipes. There's debate over which chemicals should be tested for, with no clear federal guidelines post-fire. This uncertainty complicates the process of ensuring water safety. The county is following EPA and Hawaii Department of Health recommendations, but not all potential contaminants are being tested. The cleanup and restoration process includes flushing the system until it yields clean results, a process that might be water-intensive and expensive, especially considering Maui's existing drought conditions.

Looking to the future, the article examines the broader implications of the disaster for Lahaina’s water infrastructure. Homeowners may face additional costs for testing their service lines and installing backflow prevention devices. Discussions are underway about restructuring the water system to make it more resilient to fires, which could include desalination and water recycling. However, federal funding through FEMA may not cover all the costs of such improvements. The document highlights the need for patience and careful planning in the recovery process, underscoring the complexity and long-term nature of rebuilding efforts in the wake of such a devastating environmental and infrastructure disaster.

  • Contaminated Water Supply: Following the devastating fires on August 8th in Lahaina, Maui, the drinking water system became contaminated with toxic chemicals, including carcinogens like benzene, due to the melting of pipes.

  • Extensive Restoration Time: The restoration of the water system could take two to three years and is expected to cost tens of millions of dollars, potentially delaying the town's rebuilding efforts.

  • Economic Impact: Residents may face financial hardships, such as paying mortgages on destroyed properties while also renting elsewhere, which could lead to bankruptcy for families that have lived in Lahaina for generations.

  • Testing and Flushing: Officials are conducting property-by-property testing for contamination and plan a mass flushing of the system until the water runs clean. The process may be very water-intensive and costly, especially given existing drought conditions.

  • Federal Assistance and Local Costs: The estimated cost of restoring the water system is around $80 million, with hopes of receiving federal aid, but local taxpayers and property owners will likely incur some of the expenses.

  • Damage Assessment and Regulation: The fire caused a depressurization of the water system, leading to a back-suction of contaminants. There's a debate over which chemicals to test for, with no federal mandates on specific chemicals post-fire, leaving safety levels somewhat subjective.

  • Infrastructure Concerns: While the main water sources for Lahaina were unaffected, the damage to the distribution system and potential soil contamination raise concerns about long-term environmental and health impacts.

  • Property Owners' Responsibility: Homeowners may need to test their own service lines for contamination and install expensive backflow prevention devices to ensure the water system's safety.

  • Future Resilience: Discussions are ongoing about restructuring the water system to be more resilient to fires, possibly including desalination and water recycling, though such improvements may not be fully covered by federal funding.

  • Patience Required: Despite the urgent need, the complexity of the issue necessitates patience, as the process of rebuilding the water infrastructure will be lengthy and challenging.


The Lahaina wildfire shares similarities with other wildfires that have occurred in the United States, particularly in terms of infrastructure damage, environmental impact, and the challenges of recovery and rebuilding. Here are a few notable wildfires that bear resemblance:

  1. 2018 Camp Fire in Paradise, California: This devastating fire nearly obliterated the town of Paradise, leading to massive infrastructure damage, including to the water system, which was contaminated with benzene. The recovery and rebuilding efforts were extensive, facing similar hurdles as those in Lahaina.

  2. 2017 Tubbs Fire in Santa Rosa, California: One of California’s most destructive fires at the time, the Tubbs Fire caused significant damage to homes and infrastructure. Santa Rosa faced challenges in water contamination due to melted plastic pipes, similar to the situation in Lahaina.

  3. 2020 Almeda Fire in Oregon: The Almeda Fire destroyed hundreds of homes and led to widespread toxic ash and debris, which had to be carefully managed during the cleanup process. Water systems were also at risk of contamination from the debris and chemicals released by the fire.

  4. 2019 Kincade Fire in Sonoma County, California: Like Lahaina, the Kincade Fire impacted infrastructure and posed risks of toxic contamination in the aftermath, affecting the community’s recovery efforts and raising health concerns.

  5. Colorado Wildfires: Colorado has experienced several large wildfires, like the 2012 Waldo Canyon Fire and the 2020 Cameron Peak Fire, which have similarly impacted water supplies due to runoff and debris affecting reservoirs and watersheds.

In each of these cases, communities faced the difficult task of not only rebuilding homes but also dealing with the contamination of natural resources, long-term environmental damage, and the implementation of more resilient infrastructure to withstand future disasters. The pattern of wildfires leading to secondary effects on water systems is increasingly recognized as a critical issue that requires attention during the recovery and planning stages in wildfire-prone areas.

What could a plan for recovery look like?

Here's a summary of the document drafted after the Paradise Fire in California.

The "Draft PID Water System Recovery Plan" is a detailed document outlining the steps and measures taken by the Paradise Irrigation District (PID) to recover its water system after the Camp Fire in 2018, which caused significant contamination of the distribution system with toxic chemicals, particularly Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) like benzene. Below is a summary and key points of the recovery plan as outlined in the document. [See original document here]

Summary of the Recovery Plan:

  • Background: The Camp Fire led to contamination of the PID water system, affecting 172 miles of water mains and 10,480 individual service laterals/meters. A "do not drink" advisory was issued due to VOC contamination.

  • Science of VOC Contamination: VOCs may enter the water system during wildfires, especially when the system is depressurized. These can be absorbed by pipe walls and later leach into the water. A 72-hour stagnation time is used to test for contamination.

  • Anatomy of a Water Distribution System: Explains the components of the system from transmission mains to customer plumbing, and the potential points for contamination ingress and necessary recovery actions.

  • Recovery Plan Actions: The plan consists of five key actions:

    1. Temporary Customer Supply

    2. Recover Water Meters and Appurtenances

    3. Sample Mains and Service Laterals

    4. Repair/Replace Damaged System Components

    5. Reconnect Customers to the Distribution System

  • Plan Implementation: It outlines the procurement and management process of contractors for executing the recovery plan.

  • Cost Estimates: The total cost is estimated at $53,300,000, distributed across the five actions with varying cost allocations.

  • Prioritization: The recovery efforts are categorized based on the number of standing structures served by the mains, focusing on restoring potable water to standing structures as a priority.

  • Schedule Milestones: The plan includes a timeline with milestones, aiming for complete system characterization and potable service restoration within 24 months, by early 2021.

  • Pilot Testing: Before full-scale implementation, pilot testing using District staff will be performed to refine the process and coordination.

Key Points:

  • Urgency: The plan is driven by the urgent need to restore safe drinking water and public confidence in the water system.

  • Testing: A comprehensive testing regime is in place, involving nearly 20,000 samples to ascertain water safety.

  • Coordination: The plan involves coordination across multiple actions, contractors, and consultants to ensure systematic recovery.

  • Public Communication: Test results and progress will be communicated to the public via the PID website and GIS mapping.

  • Adaptive Management: The process includes the categorization of mains and an evolving prioritization strategy to ensure that potable water is restored efficiently and effectively.

  • Financial Planning: A detailed cost estimate and formal procurement process are integral parts of the plan, indicating the significant financial impact and the need for careful management of resources.

  • Community Involvement: The recovery process is transparent, involving public information sharing and efforts to manage community expectations and concerns.

[See the original story here]

PID Draft Water System Recovery Plan
Download PDF • 3.50MB


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