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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, March 19, 2006

Farmers hoping to save reservoir

Share your thoughts and comments on the Kaloko Reservoir disaster
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By Jan TenBruggencate
Advertiser Kaua'i Bureau

An excavator was used to reduce the height of the Morita Reservoir dam, while pumps continued to try to lower the water level behind the dam to lessen the risks that it might fail and flood downstream areas.

JAN TENBRUGGENCATE | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Farmers met in a barn to discuss the future of their agricultural water system, which is threatened by proposals to demolish Kaloko Reservoir. Gingerroot in the foreground is part of a harvest stored in the barn.

JAN TENBRUGGENCATE | The Honolulu Advertiser

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WAIAKALUA, Kaua'i As thunder rolled and sheets of rain hammered this flooded island yesterday, dozens of north Kaua'i farmers sat in a barn amid shelves of stored organic ginger, trying to save the Kaloko Reservoir, whose dam burst Tuesday. Three people died and four are still missing.

More rain is in the forecast.

"Obviously, these guys don't need their crops irrigated right now," said Rep. Mina Morita, D-14th (Kapa'a, Hanalei), who called the meeting.

But summers in the region can be long and dry, and if the reservoir is destroyed, it will kill the agricultural viability of the region, said Waiakalua fruit farmer Jerry Forman.

"In the summer, we get three or four months so dry that grass won't even grow. It's absolutely crucial that we keep the ag water. We can't get by without it," he said.

The farmers met yesterday with elected officials, state and county department heads, Farm Bureau officials and others in a desperate attempt to save their water system. Officials said they support farmers and farming, but public safety must come first.

"The first issue we're dealing with right now is about health and safety to make sure people are safe right now," state agriculture director Sandra Lee Kunimoto said.

Agricultural water on the Kaloko system, which sells for about one-third of the cost of county water, is unchlorinated which is important to the area's large contingent of organic farms.

"We're making just enough that we can keep doing it. The ag water makes the difference," farmer Stephen Whitney said.

"We need to make Kaloko Reservoir safe. That can easily be done. It's not a dangerous reservoir and we need the water," farmer Dave Whatmore said.

"I'm a full-time farmer. Without this water, my trees will die, and the county can't provide the volume of water I need. "

Tom Hitch, who operates Kilauea Irrigation Co., said the pipeline that feeds water to farmers throughout the Waiakalua area comes from Kaloko Reservoir and continues to operate with the water still held by what's left of the dam's foundation.

The intake to the irrigation system is 5 feet below Kaloko's current water level, but Kaloko's water level is dropping as the dam continues to erode, he said, and once it drops another 5 feet, the pipeline will be dry.

Hitch said he believes that with its dam breached, Kaloko poses no further threat of flooding. But if agricultural water is to be preserved, the remaining dam wall needs to be stabilized soon to prevent further erosion, he said. The irrigation system could survive even if Kaloko were rebuilt at a much smaller capacity, according to Hitch.

Farmers said they are concerned that emergency officials could decide to destroy the remaining reservoir without considering their interests. State Civil Defense officials say that they are waiting for reports from state and federal engineers inspecting the dams and that no decision to destroy any reservoir has been made.

But some politicians have the same fear the farmers do.

"There could be some overreacting from those who are in control," said Rep. Ezra Kanoho D-15th (Lihu'e-Koloa).

Kanoho and other legislators at the meeting expressed strong support for farming. The others included Morita, Sen. Gary Hooser D-7th (Kaua'i, Ni'ihau), Rep. Felipe Abinsay D-29th (Sand Island, Kapalama), and Rep. Clift Tsuji, D-3rd (S. Hilo, Kurtistown).

Morita said the region may need an emergency water plan to help guide decision-making and protect the farmers' interests.

Reach Jan TenBruggencate at jant@honoluluadvertiser.com.