Building a Water Career in Hawaii

Award-winning operator keeps water flowing through the mountains of Maui.

Building a Water Career in Hawaii

Jeff Pearson overlooks the 50 mg raw water reservoir at the Piiholo Water Treatment Facility on the island of Maui, Hawaii.

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There are challenges, even in paradise.

“Surface water here is quite volatile, as you could guess. If there’s no rain, there’s no water right now,” says Jeff Pearson, director of the County of Maui Department of Water Supply. “Of course if we’re short on water we can’t bring it in from another state. Whatever we have is what we’ve got. We have to manage it.”

Pearson has seen every side of water distribution on the island of Maui. He started his career with a local engineering firm and worked on some water and wastewater projects before he joined the County of Maui Department of Water Supply. He eventually left to manage private water systems for a land management company, came back to the county, left again for a position with the state Commission on Water Resources Management and eventually returned.

Last year, Pearson’s contributions to the water industry were recognized when he received the George Warren Fuller Award from the Hawaii Section, AWWA. The award cited his work on key water supply issues in Hawaii and his volunteer efforts in AWWA leadership and educational programming.

Twists and turns

Pearson came to Hawaii fresh out of school in 1981 with a degree in engineering from the University of Minnesota. His sister was there on vacation, but when she went home a few weeks later, he stayed behind.

With no plan for the move and no leads for a job in engineering, he worked where he could, often in construction and other fields related to his education. In the meantime, he searched for a job in his field, finally landing one with a small engineering firm. That enabled him to earn the hours he needed under the supervision of a licensed engineer to earn his Professional Engineer credential.

Pearson worked as an engineer in training from 1989-91 at Norman Saito Engineering in Wailuku, Maui. Along the way he supported engineers on drainage and waterline designs and got a glimpse of his future.

“I was doing some inspection for the design of a 36-inch waterline that ended up being part of the Department of Water Supply’s infrastructure, so I was kind of exposed to what I’m doing now way back then.”

He also studied for and passed the two eight-hour tests required by the University of Hawaii to earn his degree in public engineering in 1994.

During the 1990s and through the turn of the century, Pearson worked with two engineering firms, mostly working on water and wastewater projects. In 2003, he joined the Maui Department of Water Supply as deputy director. There he managed three of six divisions, overseeing about 90 team members, involved in operations, water quality and water treatment. He also worked on the utility’s budgets and was a liaison with state water quality officials.

Pearson left the county’s payroll in 2005 but stayed in the county as water manager for the privately owned Kapalua Water Co. There he managed islandwide private nonpotable and potable systems while continuing to work closely with county and state agencies on water issues, compliance and rates.

Pearson stayed with the private company through 2011, when he was named head engineer for the Maui water department’s Capital Improvement Section. In the position, he oversaw $20 million to $30 million per year in construction projects while working with the department leaders and the county council on the utility’s budget. He also coordinated land management, easements and property acquisition.

In 2015, Pearson became deputy director of the state Commission on Water Resources Management, which is under the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources, overseeing all surface and groundwater sources in the state. Although he returned to the county in 2018, his time with the state was valuable.

“It gave me great insight when I came back here because I had a good understanding of how they operate, I knew the people there as far as communicating with them,” he says. “The state water commission manages the source water, so it manages all the surface water, the streams and the groundwater. I was only there for about three and a half years, but it gave me great insight.”

Multiple systems

Although Maui County bears the name of Hawaii’s third largest island, the county borders cross several ocean channels to encompass the neighboring islands of Moloka‘i, Lana‘i, Kaho‘olawe and Molokini, the last two uninhabited.

The Department of Water Supply operates water production and distribution systems on the two most populous islands, serving 37,000 metered customers on Maui and 7,000 on Moloka‘i. Lana‘i has a single landowner, and its water system is privately operated.

Within that territory, the department operates six distinct water systems, serving the business and tourism hubs in the central area including the county seat of Wailuku, as well as a number of smaller communities.

Besides supplying water to nearly 170,000 residents, the department sees to the needs of substantial numbers of tourists. In 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic, the average daily count of tourists in Maui County was more than 66,000, adding up to 2.9 million annual day visitors. The resorts also place a heavy demand on the system to maintain their lush landscaping, a need that has continued through pandemic.

In addition to the county’s largest towns, Pearson’s department operates water systems for small villages and farming communities on Maui, several on the east side of the island away from the business hub and several more well above the beaches in the Upcountry mountainous core of the island.

To meet the needs of the county, there are six water treatment plants operated by the DWS system: Kamole Weir, Piiholo, Olindo, Lahaina, Mahinahina and Iao.

From the ground

Geography and geology both inform the way the department runs its operation. Terrain and elevation changes present pumping challenges, and while the utility charges one rate for all customers, high electricity costs mean greater expense to serve certain areas.

The islands’ geology plays a big role, too. “It’s volcanic, of course, and there are dyke systems that will inhibit or block the flow of underground water,” Pearson says. 

The county’s most predictable freshwater reserves sit under its mountains in aquifers, often at elevations higher than the coastal communities and resorts. The majority of the groundwater is considered basal aquifer, and the department relies on nature to do the groundwater treatment and storage. The water in these basal aquifers is well filtered as it drains through the island’s volcanic soil and collects in a stable stratum of pure water, essentially floating atop the denser salt water that reaches the water table from the Pacific Ocean.

Of course, in order to pump a million gallons a day from one of these aquifers, it has to be able to recover quickly. “You need to have a good permeability and flow underground. If it doesn’t recover quickly you may not have the ability to pump for a longer period of time. So you really have to understand the geology.”

Well depths can range up to 2,000 feet deep. Due to the salt water, the wells actually draw freshwater from depths that are above sea level. “The water is of such good quality that we don’t really have to treat it,” Pearson says. “We just add a little chlorine as a precaution for disinfection in the distribution system.” The chlorination is done at the 50 well sites before the water is transported to the distribution network.

The department saves significant money because it doesn’t need to treat the well water, but it cannot rely on that source alone. A recent statewide study of water resources calculated the volume of water that can be taken from aquifers without damaging the natural balance between the volcanic surface and the saltwater base. 

“Right now central Maui is pumping about 16 mgd, sometimes as high as 18 mgd, but the sustainable yield is only 20, so there’s not a lot of extra room,” Pearson says.

Dual source

The Maui Water Use and Development Plan required by the state Commission on Water Resource Management studied the county’s aquifers and the water rights for domestic use, traditional and customary practices, keeping the water in its natural state and fulfilling the needs of the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, before setting out a proposal focused on meeting customer demands while maintaining the health of the resources.

Although protection of the aquifers is a key factor in the decision to use both well water and surface sources, Pearson says another reason for the dual systems is that the surface water can be stored and transported at low cost through ditch and pipeline systems originally built to serve the pineapple and sugar cane growing that once covered much of Maui.

It actually costs more to transport the well water from the mountainsides to the distribution systems than it does to treat the surface water in treatment plants, but the well water becomes an important resource during the drier spring months when surface water is not enough to meet the demands.

With either source, Pearson says his system has a key advantage. In most of the system the source elevation is high enough above the population centers that the water flows by gravity. Even though the system’s newest facility, the Iao Water Treatment Plant, requires a 30 psi head pressure, the natural surface water pressure actually has to be reduced before it reaches the microfiltration facility.


While gravity lends a helping hand, it doesn’t do all the heavy work. Upcountry areas are served primarily by surface water, but the dry season and droughts necessitate supplementation with groundwater.

To access additional source water that’s farther away, there are pumping challenges of bringing that water across difficult terrain to introduce it into the existing system.

“It’s of course doable, but it’s quite expensive and you have to weigh the cost-benefit of that,” Pearson says.

Simply getting the water up to the surface presents challenges as well. If you drill a well upcountry and you’re pumping water up 2,000 feet with 600 hp submersible motors, it takes a heck of a lot of electricity.

“We start up one well that pumps water up about 2,200 feet and people’s lights dim,” Pearson says. “And then we pay the local electric company, I think $9,000 a month, for them to ensure that they have the power if we need to start up the well. We run that well maybe three months out of the year at most.

“We’re looking at an additional well upcountry and still haven’t heard definitively from the electrical utility if they can run two of these large-horsepower motors at the same time.”

Ready for the future

Despite the challenges, the Department of Water Supply is managing its supply, seeking new groundwater sources and preaching conservation.

With the opening of the Iao plant in 2019, Pearson’s department increased its peak water capacity to 28 mgd. The Iao plant gives the county capacity to serve the growing number of residents and visitors in the Central Maui area for the next five to seven years. Before reaching the limits of the existing system, the department will turn to the Maui Water Use and Development Plan to help determine the source and the location of future water reserves.

As for Pearson, who turned 64 in August, retirement isn’t too far off in the distance. He’s looking forward to spending plenty of time with his grandkids.

“It’s fantastic,” he says of his ‘ohana, or extended family. “It’s just fantastic.” 

Editor Luke Laggis contributed to this story.


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