LETTER: Digging Deeper Into Hawai‘i Island’s Well Failures

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I’ve been following the misadventures of the DWS for some time now and became seriously concerned when I started reading statements in June that made absolutely no engineering sense.

Finding no ‘easy’ way to communicate with DWS, I first posted my concerns to the ‘office of the mayor’ web portal on 7/7. Since that time, I’ve sent two letters to Mayor Kim, two posts to his website, one text message to DWS engineering, one email to DWS engineering, two emails to DWS managers/engineering/support AND all water board members.

During this interval, I had two lengthy conversations with engineering personnel and decided to keep my comments out of the public eye; they seemed well-meaning, willing to listen and anxious to apply my suggestions.

And then the pump went crashing down the well. And then the pump in inventory was found unusable. And then Mayor Kim concluded that no one was at fault. And then water board member Nestorio Domingo, supporter Jim Hussey and observer Arne Werchick debate the concept of ‘dual redundancy’ wells/pumping.

It’s time to ‘pump’ a little engineering clarity into the situation.

The DWS water board (and DWS) define themselves as ‘semi-autonomous’, meaning they govern themselves (sort of). It’s also a statement of policy that DWS proper takes their marching orders from the water board. It’s fair to conclude that whatever the nature of the mess that exists, the DWS ‘structure’ owns it. Mr. Hussey advises us to ‘not blame management’.


Bad thought! The navy wasted little time in removing a fleet commander from duty following four mid-sea collisions. How many wells are down? Would you and Mr. Domingo have advocated doubling the number of ships under his command? No, the answer is to get to the root of the problem. The navy had an easy situation relative to ours (they also have more money than us to fix it).

So, what IS our current situation? Public information is; five of ten wells (in a larger sector, five of thirteen) are not operable, a replacement pump was deployed into its well and found inoperable (while raising it to the surface, a cable snapped destroying the pump and possibly the well), a complete unused pump assembly in ‘inventory’ was found to be inoperable.

All the inoperable wells have the same subcontractor noted for repair (source: DWS website, Status Reports). The affected sector was designed to produce a combined capacity of 22 Mgal/day, our typical usage was 11 Mgal/day, under the current restrictions, 8 Mgal/ day. The stated MTBF (mean time between failure) of the pumps was given to be 5-7 years. Assuming best case, the numbers suggest two pump failures per year, EVERY year, without considering the expected degradation of the well fields themselves. This makes six pump failures in a single year (two late, two as expected, two early) a predictable scenario… without bad luck or ‘irony’.

A perfect storm is gathering and we should prepare, now!

The pump in inventory was examined and found inoperative, but the details of this event illustrate the depth of the problem. It was stated that the test was performed by a Centrilift technician, which begs the question, ‘How did that come to happen?’.


The corporate sequence follows; Centrilift ESP Pumping Systems is the entity which manufactures/services our pumps/motors, Baker Hughes is the corporate head of Centrilift and a MAJOR figure in the crude oil pumping industry, General Electric has recently acquired Baker Hughes.

As important as water pumping is to our island, it is only a poor stepchild to this triad.

The recent hurricane damages will create enormous pressures to ‘get the crude flowing again’ at any cost, especially within this industry, and they will be long-term. The only immediate solution is to
become more self-sufficient and that begins with learning and training.

Recent statements by DWS indicated that they; do not have the capability to remove and replace pump/motor assemblies, do not have the training nor expertise to troubleshoot/repair the pumps/motors, have allowed their subcontractor to order/purchase the pumps/motors, do not have the capability to test the performance characteristics of the pumps/wells under operating conditions, are not now (and apparently never have) subjected the pumps to such performance tests nor requested such tests by the manufacturer.

In short, DWS/the water board have had little direct engineering involvement with the wells and their ‘chain of responsibility’ other than the water pumped from them. This situation requires answers to the following questions long before considering additional redundancy;

  • Regarding the ‘dropped/damaged pump’ episode: Could the replacement pump lowered into the well only to discover it was inoperable, have been discovered as such by the same type of inspection performed by the Centrilift technician beforehand?
  • Exactly what tests were performed beforehand and by whom? What were the results?
  • Regarding the test performed by the Centrilift technician: What specific test was performed and what were the results? The statement by Keith Nakamoto that this specific test was being considered as necessary in all future contracts and actions suggests he gave great weight to it. Why was DWS not aware of this (apparently simple) test protocol? Had it ever been performed before?
  • Regarding the accuracy of the information disclosed by DWS: How could DWS report intelligently on the general state of the entire system without specific flow/pressure data, by well, logged over the full operational history of the system?
  • Who is responsible for maintaining such records and, if they exist, will they be made publicly available? Who has analyzed the data in these records and what are the results? What recent analyses have been done to determine the state of the well fields themselves, as opposed to the individual well components?

In preparing to discuss this with DWS/water board, I went directly to Centrilift’s website and found a treasure trove of information from discussions of pumping strategies, pump types and structures, common failure mechanisms to ground conditions, geological structures and good operating practices.

The greatest eye-opener was learning that inappropriate operation of almost any given pump could (and would) cause premature failure.

I would strongly suggest anyone interested in digging deeper into this matter, visit;
https://www.bakerhughes.com/news-and-media/resources/brochures/centrilift-water-systems-overview or Google Centrilift.

To the board members and DWS engineering and staff: I urge you to contact Centrilift/Baker Hughes immediately and arrange for an on-island ‘seminar’ of intensive instruction covering, at a minimum, becoming proficient in the ‘ownership’ of the pumps (and their care, operation, troubleshooting and servicing), understanding the unique geohydrology of our island, and a full day of questions and answers.

You (board members) should require yourselves to attend, and require the same of the entire staff of DWS. Following this, a decision to commit to a path of ‘self-sufficiency’, or not.

The choice is stark, pay now or pay more later. The cost of one pump ought to be able to set us up with a full-blown test facility and the training and expertise to hit the ground running.

Letters, commentaries and opinion pieces are not edited by Big Island Now.

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