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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, February 16, 2007

$4.5 million to clear Big Isle ditch

By Kevin Dayton
Advertiser Big Island Bureau

HILO, Hawai'i Struggling farmers along the Lower Hamakua Ditch system are hoping for relief soon now that federal officials announced yesterday they will provide $4.5 million to repair damage done to the water system by the Oct. 15 earthquakes.

U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawai'i, announced the Natural Resources conservation Service will provide the money to clear clogged sections of the ditch and make repairs to the ditch intake systems along the state-owned Waimea and Lower Hamakua systems.

The money cannot be used to repair the privately owned Kohala Ditch that also suffered damage in the earthquakes, but Inouye said in a written statement that he is "committed" to obtaining money for the Kohala ditch as well.

The Waimea or Upper Hamakua system serves about 110 agricultural operations along its 15-mile length. That system has been delivering water, but the ditch apparently has leaks that cause it to quickly run dry during dry weather.

The longer Lower Hamakua system serves about 250 farmers and ranchers along its 24-mile length, and has not been delivering water since the earthquakes. That has forced operations along the Lower ditch to tap into county water lines or to haul water to livestock.

Malama Solomon, who is partners with her father in an operation to graze cattle on about 1,000 acres in Honoka'a, said she had to spend about $16,000 to $20,000 to install a county meter, tap a county line and build a water delivery system for her cattle.

Solomon, who was a candidate for lieutenant governor last year, called that arrangement "a very expensive way to go" because the county water costs more than ditch water. She also said there are extra labor costs because she needs to have a worker frequently check her water delivery system for leaks.

Jill Mattos and her husband work 400 cows on 750 leased acres near Honoka'a, and they also rely on county water since the earthquakes. However, the county has made it clear that if there is a prolonged dry period, the county may not be able to continue to supply the farmers and ranchers.

"It's been at times very difficult, because with the ditch water you have a steady flow of water," she said. "We're so worried that the county would cut us off."

Lorie Farrell, administrator of the Big Island Farm Bureau, said she does not know of any operations that had to shut down when the flow in the Lower Hamakua system stopped, but it has been a strain on farmers and ranchers.

"There are people struggling," she said. "It's just the loss of a lifeline."

Hawai'i National Guard crews and inmates from Kulani Correctional Facility have worked to clear ditch channels in the Waimea and Lower Hamakua systems that were filled with debris during the earthquake.

The state tentatively estimated the damage to the systems was $10 million, and that estimate appears to be reasonably accurate so far, said Brian Kau, administrator of the state Department of Agriculture's agricultural resource management division.

In addition to the federal money announced yesterday, Gov. Linda Lingle's administration has made about $5 million available for emergency repairs so work can get started, and another $3.5 million was included in an emergency appropriation for earthquake relief now pending before the state Legislature, Kau said.

Kau said the state expects more detailed damage estimates soon from a consultant hired to inspect the system, but it appears none of the tunnels on the Lower Hamakua system have collapsed, he said.

"We hope to at least get some water back into the Lower ditch within the next few months, but we're not promising it will be full flow," Kau said.

The earthquake damage may be the most serious the Hamakua Ditch system has ever sustained, and the interruption has been hard on area farmers, he said.

"I think it's pretty bad," he said. "They've had some rain, but they certainly haven't been able to plant or plan for the future."

Reach Kevin Dayton at kdayton@honoluluadvertiser.com.

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