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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, March 22, 2006

No major findings as half of Kaua'i's dams get checked

 •  Kaloko dam safety fixture disputed

By Karen Blakeman
Advertiser Staff Writer

It took a catastrophic dam failure on Kaua'i but Hawai'i's long-neglected dam safety program is becoming more of a priority for state officials, who announced yesterday that more than half the dam spillways on Kaua'i have now been inspected.

Inspectors found "no immediate or significant findings," among the inspected dams, said Maj. Gen. Robert Lee, director of Civil Defense operations in Hawai'i. The inspections focused on whether dam spillways were overgrown, blocked or in need of repair, Lee said.

Kaua'i dam owners cleared overgrowths of vegetation as the inspectors from the Army Corps of Engineers worked, Lee said.

Kaloko dam, which breached on March 14, killing three people and leaving four missing, is now at a level that state officials consider safe.

"I consider it stable," Lee said. "I've been told it has a less than 1 percent chance of catastrophic failure."

Morita dam, which is fed from a stream leading out of Kaloko, also had threatened to breach but has been drained to a level that no longer poses a threat to those below it.

Search-and-recovery efforts are resuming and repairs to the roads will be made as weather allows, he said.

The other half of Kaua'i's 54 dams will be inspected before the weekend, Lee said yesterday, and the inspectors engineers with expertise in dam safety from across the Mainland will move on from Kaua'i to inspect 51 dams on Maui, 13 dams on the Big Island and 15 dams on O'ahu.

Lee said state officials haven't decided whether they will release inspection reports as each county is inspected or wait until dam inspections are completed across the state.

"I am sure the detailed inspection of each dam will make interesting reading," he said.

Inspections of Hawai'i's dams aging, earthen structures built, for the most part, in the late 1800s and early 1900s have been sporadic due to undermanning and underfunding of the state dam safety office. State records show the last inspection was conducted in late 2004, according to the Department of Land and Natural Resources.

DLNR's dam safety office was created through legislation passed in 1987 after a series of dam failures throughout the country brought attention to the need. It began suffering financial cutbacks as early as 1999, when DLNR lost funding to contract out dam inspections to outside engineers.

"The inventory was last updated in 2002, with minor updates after that," according to a DLNR statement released yesterday.

Hawai'i's portion of The National Inventory of Dams shows that Kaloko and Morita dams were never inspected.

Since 1999, resources at the dam safety office continued to decline.

Only one engineer is assigned to oversee the program, which, according to Peter Young, head of DLNR, also addresses flood control. The state budget for dam safety last year was $164,000, and all but $2,000 went to salaries for the engineer and a half time clerical assistant, he said.

Young said yesterday that steps are being created to increase staffing and legislation has been introduced that will address the funding problems.

"We're now in the process of hiring a senior engineer," Young said. "And we're creating a new position for an engineering assistant."

A bill introduced by the governor will provide $5 million for evaluating the dams and the hazards they pose to populations and property downstream, he said.

Young said state officials are considering an increase in the number of engineers assigned to dam safety and flood control to four.

The American Society of Civil Engineers had issued reports in March, 2005 and in 2001, saying dams across the country were unsafe.

In October of last year, The Advertiser ran an article about Hawai'i's unsafe dams, which quoted the state's sole dam safety engineer.

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

Young said DLNR officials did not respond to the warnings from Matsuda and the ASCE last year because they were focused on the aftermath of the Manoa floods and on creating tsunami maps for the state.

Reach Karen Blakeman at kblakeman@honoluluadvertiser.com.