Sponsored by:

Comment, blog & share photos

Log in | Become a member
The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Officials knew of dam dangers

 •  2nd dam failure feared

By Karen Blakeman
Advertiser Staff Writer

State officials have long known that dams across Hawai'i have deficiencies that could lead to breaches and serious damage.

Last March, the American Society of Civil Engineers issued a report on the state of the nation's infrastructure. It gave Hawai'i a "D" on a traditional A-through-F grading scale for its state-regulated dams.

It had given the state the same grade in 2001.

"We've been very fortunate we haven't had a major dam failure here," Edwin Matsuda, the state's only dam safety engineer, said in October.

Last night, Gov. Linda Lingle was speaking to reporters about what the state was doing to protect Kaua'i residents after one dam gave way and another dam was so close to falling apart that even emergency workers were not allowed downstream.

She was asked what the state had done before the crisis to boost its dam safety program.

"Nothing that I'm aware of," she said, looking around at the department heads and state representatives who accompanied her to a news conference.

None of them corrected her.

Hawai'i is dotted with dams, most of them privately owned and many no longer used for their original purpose. Owners often cannot afford to fix problems with their dams.

Nearly all of Hawai'i's dams are earthen structures erected in the early 1900s, before federal standards and long before Hawai'i created a state office for assessing dam and levee safety. Many of them, including some of the largest in the state, need work.

ASCE officials said last year that the situation is a recipe for disaster that is repeated across the country, and a national organization of dam safety officials has called for federal money to help owners pay for repairs.

The state has more than 130 dams. Kaua'i alone has 60, now heavily saturated by the rain.

Peter Young, head of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, said yesterday many of the Kaua'i dams were being closely observed by state officials after Kaloko dam burst and a second dam, Morita, showed signs of imminent failure.

The Kaloko dam was built in 1890 as part of the the Kilauea Sugar Co. reservoir system. Morita was built in 1920.

When the heavy rain that soaked O'ahu and Kaua'i began this month, Matsuda, the state's only dam safety engineer, was on vacation. He rushed back to his office to try to assess the damage the rain was having on the state's dams and levees. His budget in 2005 was $164,000, an amount that covered little more than salaries for himself and a quarter-time clerical position and a few administrative costs.

As he worked, the damage was being done.

Yesterday, as he prepared to fly to Kaua'i, he refused to make any comment on the safety of state-regulated dams and referred media calls to Young.

"Not a good day," he said.

The state classifies Kaloko and Morita dams as "low hazard" because neither is above the state's most heavily populated areas.

ASCE examined high-hazard and medium-hazard dams, and determined that 22 dams in Hawai'i had deficiencies that raise safety concerns.

Twenty of those deficient dams are rated high-hazard, meaning their failures would cause significant property damage and loss of life.

Reach Karen Blakeman at kblakeman@honoluluadvertiser.com.