‘Wettest City’ Slowly Drying Up, Thanks To El Nino Hawaii’s Hilo Has Its Driest January Since 1912; Phoenix Wetter

SUNDAY, FEB. 22, 1998

As El Nino sops both coasts of the mainland United States with relentless rain, it’s drying up the island of Hawaii, where Hilo has long boasted of being the “wettest city in America.”

An average 10-1/2 feet of rain soaks this eastern end of the “Big Island” each year. In a typical year, 15 inches would have fallen by now, but so far this year, local rain gauges have measured barely half an inch.

A state of emergency has been declared, and residents are under orders to cut water consumption by 10 percent.

Some residents are already lining up with jugs at county water spigots, brush fires have threatened thousands of homes and the island’s prized macadamia nut groves and ornamental plant growers face a dire growing season.

It’s all because El Nino, the warming phenomenon across the central Pacific, pushes storms that normally pass over Hawaii farther to the north, diverting their heavy rainfall directly to California, said Roger Pierce of the National Weather Service.

Some farmers are resorting to desperate measures.

One, who spoke on condition he be identified only as Rodney, has been breaking state law by siphoning water from a nearby stream to spray his crop of taro, the plant that is the source of poi, the staple of the traditional Hawaiian diet.

“I have two choices,” Rodney said, “do it or lose everything. If I don’t pump the water, I might as well file for bankruptcy.”

No significant rain is expected for another two months.

“It’s like a slow death,” said Lee Kunitake, executive director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency. “If this continues for another two months, we are going to be in a serious emergency.”

An emergency already is being experienced by 7,500 homes that rely on rainwater to cook and bathe.

At a county-owned spigot, Derek Pagan moves a hose from one container to the next, part of the daily ritual of obtaining 120 gallons of water for several families.

“It’s just survival,” Pagan said.

Jeanne Miller is all smiles as the K&T; Water Hauling truck pulls up to her Glenwood home to deliver 4,000 gallons - a two-month supply for seven people.

“This is a learning experience for me,” said Miller, who just moved from Honolulu. “I’m used to turning on my faucet whenever. I just wish I could take a long, hot bath.”

People on public water systems can be fined for watering lawns or crops, or washing cars.

Outdoor burning is banned, but that hasn’t prevented brush fires from charring 2,500 acres and threatening 3,000 homes.

“There is a tremendous fire hazard,” said Harry Kim, Hawaii County’s civil defense chief. “The type of vegetation and grass we have here … is as explosive as an old Christmas tree right now.”

Macadamia nut farmers, coming off a record year, predict a disastrous 1998 with production drops of more than 25 percent. Mauna Loa Macadamia Partners LP, the world’s largest producer, saw its fourth-quarter profits plunge 56 percent.

Cattle ranchers are shipping calves to feed lots on the mainland, hoping to make what little grass they have last for their breeding stock.

Tropical flower and ornamental plant growers are working to save their inventories.

“If they’re saying it’s going to last that long, we’re going to be in disaster mode,” said John Cross, diversified agriculture manager for Mauna Kea Agribusiness Co.

Illegal marijuana farmers, whose crops can be worth hundreds of millions of dollars, have postponed planting.

Hilo typically receives an average 126 inches of rainfall annually. But Hilo Airport reported just 0.14 of an inch last month, less than a half day’s worth of rain in a normal January. That’s the driest January since 1912. So far in February, Hilo has received 0.32 of an inch, instead of the normal 5.15 inches, Pierce said.

Even the deserts of southern Arizona are wetter during this El Nino year. Phoenix has gotten 3.06 inches of rain this year; normally, it averages only about 7.6 for an entire year. And that pales in comparison to California, where Los Angeles already has 9.29 inches this month.

John Rozett, a grower of potted plants, is worried about other numbers. He’s paying $38,000 to have a well drilled at his tropical plant farm at Puna.

“I am operating on ‘survival maintenance,”’ Rozett said. “If we had adequate water now, we would be significantly increasing production. Instead, we are decreasing production and just trying to keep plants alive.”


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