Dammed for All Time?

?Small farms and rural lifestyles hang in the balance as Kaua‘i scrutinizes its aging dams.


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When the Kaloko and Morita dams burst in March, releasing a torrent of water that washed away trees, homes and seven persons, it was the first time many Kaua‘i residents became aware of Wailapa Stream. It’s one of dozens of small streams that flow from the island’s wettest-spot-on-Earth interior to the sea, a course that requires all but the streams along the rugged Napali Coast, which has no roads, to pass through culverts beneath the main highway, where they’re largely unnoticed by the thousands of motorists passing by.

Swollen by waters from two broken dams, it took Wailapa Stream just minutes to carve this mini Grand Canyon on Kaua‘i’s North Shore. photos: David Boynton

Few streams complete their journey unimpeded; most—like Wailapa, until it broke free from the constraints of Morita dam—have been captured along the way to feed reservoirs and ditches that in turn feed water to the fields that feed us.

But as the Garden Island becomes less like Eden and more like Malibu, with an emphasis on beachfront and ocean views, the importance of mountain streams has slipped from consciousness.

The island’s 54 reservoirs—more than exist in the rest of the state combined—are similarly largely out of sight, and thus mind; many residents never thought about whether they lived downhill from one until they saw what happened to the unfortunate souls who did.

In the pre-Western contact days of taro-cultivating Hawaiians, everyone knew where streams were, what they were named and the paths they followed to the sea. Water, wai, means wealth in the Hawaiian language, because the earliest inhabitants knew the true worth of cold, running water in growing healthy taro.

The dams and reservoirs came with the sugar cane and pineapple plantations, and, while the owners of these huge farms tabulated their wealth on the tonnage of commodity produced, they never discounted the value of water. Every plantation assigned workers to monitor and maintain the dams to ensure a continuous flow to the thirsty fields, and kids grew up fishing and swimming in the irrigation ditches.

Today, many of those ditches have been closed off and the reservoirs and dams that once filled them ignored or outright abandoned, placing the island’s agricultural future and pastoral landscapes in a precarious position.

“Without reservoirs, farming is not likely in any area,” says Jerry Ornellas, president of the East Kaua‘i Water Users Cooperative and a tropical fruit farmer in Kapa‘a.

Virtually every Kaua‘i farmer—including the state’s largest coffee grower and the island’s sole remaining sugar planter—depends on these water systems, because county water is too expensive, low-pressure and, in some places, scarce, to satisfy irrigation needs.

“It’s a terrible tragedy, what happened in Kaloko, but it focused attention on the issues surrounding our reservoirs,” Ornellas says. “It heightened awareness and people are looking at it in a new light. We’re primarily a rural state, but people in the cities tend to forget that.”

Ensuring public safety is just one of many challenges to emerge from the Kaloko flood. Equally daunting are the still unanswered questions of who should pay for pricey repairs to the island’s aging dams, and what might happen if the water they’re holding back is released.

“It’s a domino effect,” Ornellas explains. “If we start shutting these things down and farmers can’t farm, because there’s no water, are they going to want to subdivide, rezone their land? There are a lot of realtors out there who would love to see that happen. Then there goes ag, not to mention our economy.”

But even shutting down dams, an expensive process known as decommissioning, is a formidable task. All the water they’re now retaining must be dealt with.

“Normally you would breach them, but you’ve got to consider the ramifications downstream,” Ornellas says. “And nobody knows what that would be, especially when you start considering what could happen with storms and floods. Most of these dams have been here for a hundred years, and there’s been a lot of development around them since then.”

In the case of Kaloko, the situation is even more convoluted. While dams typically are built in a valley, trapping a single stream, Kaloko was constructed in an ancient cinder cone, creating a giant bowl filled with water collected from 14 streams by two ditches that run for miles along nearby mountain ridges.

If the dam is decommissioned, as its owner, Jimmy Pflueger, suggested in the aftermath of the fatal breach, the ditches must be opened, too, says Tom Hitch, who owns the irrigation system supplied by the Kaloko reservoir. “You’re going to be putting water down valleys that haven’t seen water for 125 years. That’s going to be monumental, because we have all these subdivisions in there now.”

Twin Reservoir in Kapahi is one of dozens on Kaua‘i that provide water for farmers like Jerry Ornellas.

Meanwhile, the 45-acre, unlined Kaloko reservoir loses millions of gallons each month to seepage, which feeds five large streams that run through North Shore properties. “The reservoir also acts as a flash-flood control for these streams,” Hitch explains, “and, if it wasn’t holding back the water, I’m not sure the culverts in the state highway could handle it.

“Besides, Kaloko has over 50 acres of catchment,” he adds. “Even if we turned off all the ditches, it could still overflow.”

Twenty small, organic farms depend on Kaloko for irrigation. “The uncertainty of the situation is hard; we don’t know what’s going to happen in the big picture,” says Phil Green, who grows ginger root and tropical fruit at Kaua‘i Organic Farms. “It has affected my ability to make money on this farm.”

Green was aware, when he bought the established farm in 2004, that the Kaloko water supply “could be touch-and-go in the summer, depending on how much rainfall there’d been. But I never thought I’d be facing this issue, that the one reservoir out of how many there are in Hawai‘i would go.”

The farmers have met with state officials and have sent Pflueger a letter asking him to keep the dam operational, an action that Hitch supports. Still, he recognizes how difficult and expensive it will be “with the attorneys, litigation, trying to get the permits. It’s a nightmare.”

Adds Green, “We’re trying to be proactive, but there’s not a heckuva lot of options. We’re just hoping things will be resolved somehow.”

Although the ravaged landscape continues to bear stark witness to the March flood, Kaua‘i residents don’t seem especially worried. Most view the Kaloko breach as a freak event, while some see it as a warning against the rapid pace of development.

Ornellas says he recently spoke to a Kapa‘a community group about the area’s reservoirs, and was surprised that not one person raised the issue of safety.

People generally believe that state and federal inspectors are on top of the situation, which is true, to an extent. All the island’s dams, and some of its reservoirs, have been checked since Kaloko and Morita failed. But many of the repairs recommended in this latest review were first suggested years ago, and never implemented. It’s unclear whether the state will follow up more vigorously this time, especially since it hasn’t been especially diligent about maintaining its own structures.

The state owns all but one of the reservoirs that deliver water to nearly 7,000 acres of former sugar lands between Lihu‘e and Kapa‘a. When Lihu‘e Plantation closed down, the system began falling apart until it was rescued by a group of farmers and landowners, including the Kaua‘i Hindu Monastery and actress Bette Midler, who formed the East Kaua‘i Water Users Cooperative to keep agriculture alive on the east side.

“I keep thinking, what if we had not been managing the system?” Orenellas says. “The state was just going to walk away from it without realizing how dangerous that can be.”

At least six Kaua‘i dams—two each in Anahola and Kealia, one in Kekaha and another in Kapahi—already have been abandoned, according to inspection reports. In other words, they’re still holding water, but no one is maintaining them, creating a potentially dangerous situation the state must resolve.

But public safety and the future of farming aren’t the only things at stake. None of the island’s large landowners—Grove Farm, Gay & Robinson Sugar Co. and A&B-Hawai‘i Inc.—have any plans to shut down their dams and reservoirs. While the stored water is now used primarily for irrigation, it’s being eyed for other uses, including a proposed sugar-cane ethanol plant and development.

Grove Farm, which owns six dams and reservoirs, has extensive holdings slated for commercial, industrial and residential development on Kaua‘i’s southeast side, and A&B, which owns more than a dozen reservoirs, some of which irrigate fields cultivated by Kaua‘i Coffee Co., is planning extensive construction around Koloa.

Grove Farm recently built a water purification plant at its Kapaia Reservoir to provide drinking water for some of its new projects in Lihu‘e and Hanama‘ulu, and the company’s Wait-a reservoir also helps to support six of the county’s drinking-water wells in the Koloa-Maha‘ulepu region, said company vice president Marissa Sandblom. “It would be difficult to continue operations as they exist without water from these reservoirs,” she noted.

While the large landowners have continued to care for their dams and reservoirs, even though some currently need repair work, according to inspection reports, maintenance has been sketchy at best on state-owned dams and many private ones, too. The most commonly cited reason is the expense.

Ornellas says Hawai‘i’s Legislature had appropriated money for new control gates and reservoir depth gauges on state dams and reservoirs prior to the Kaloko failure, but using public funds on private structures would require changing state law. He predicts lawmakers will take up that issue in their next session.

Despite the numerous functions that reservoirs serve, many Kaua‘i residents have no sense of their value, Ornellas said. “There are a lot of people on ag lands who are not farmers and they’d like to just see the reservoirs go away. They have no interest in maintaining the infrastructure because they’re not farming.”

Green thinks state and federal funds should be used to keep Kaua‘i’s dams safe and operational, even if they’re privately owned. “The solution is not to dismantle all the reservoirs. People use them, and now we’re talking about potentially going back to crops that produce ethanol, so we’re going to need water, right?”

Ornellas certainly thinks so. “There’s going to be an agricultural renaissance,” he predicted. “Especially for Kaua‘i. O‘ahu is losing all its ag lands, so the farms will have to move out to the Neighbor Islands, and we’ve got to be ready. Without water, all bets are off with farming.”

Kaua‘i-based writer Joan Conrow last wrote for HONOLULU about GMO farming.

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