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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Thursday, April 19, 2001

Flume collapse threatens Hamakua farming

By Hugh Clark
Advertiser Big Island Bureau

HONOKA'A, Hawai'i — About 60 farming families on former sugar land along the Hamakua coast are facing a new crisis from delayed repairs to the Hamakua Ditch.

The collapse of Flume No. 30, one of a series of structures along the 24-mile ditch that distributes water from Waipi'o Valley to farmers in Pa'auilo, has left 4,000 acres high and dry probably for up to two years, said Walker Sanders, president of the Hamakua-North Hilo Agricultural Cooperative.

Without irrigation, farmers will not be able to grow papaya, vegetables and medicinal crops, including 'awa. Other crops such as macadamia nuts, coffee and aloe vera that can survive on rainfall should be OK, Sanders said.

Even before the flume collapse, some had already walked away from their farms because of problems with the water supply. Others, such as papaya growers, have plowed their crops under in hopes of returning.

Sanders said one of the biggest employers in the district, Zack Gibson, who was raising various medicinal crops, laid off all 20 workers and shut down his operation except for cattle grazing.

The 91-year-old open irrigation system that at one time provided up to 34 million gallons of water a day has been a sore point with growers since sugar ended in 1992. Leaks and other problems caused by a lack of repairs by a succession of those who controlled the water line have resulted in reduced or interrupted flows.

In its closing years, Hamakua Sugar did little maintenance work on the system before filing for bankruptcy almost nine years ago.

Much of its land was acquired at a federal auction by Kamehameha Schools, which failed to repair the water system.

The state later acquired rights to the Hamakua Ditch and was to revive it under a federal-user plan costing more than $10 million.

The proposal is awaiting financing. In the interim, emergency repairs started last month.

Sanders said emergency repairs to Flumes Nos. 2 and 3 were completed and water had resumed flowing to the south only a short time before critical Flume No. 30 fell. Sanders said that happened in recent days.

About two-thirds of the cooperative's 90 members are affected by the break in the flume.