Rough water ahead

A coming decision
has major implications
for water allocation -- and lives

By Pat Omandam

Five years ago, Zeune Baccam decided growing cucumbers, string beans, soy, tomatoes, green onions and eggplants for a living was far less demanding than his previous job raising money for the local Boy Scouts.

Today, Baccam, who immigrated from Laos to Hawaii in 1975, runs a successful cooperative of 30 small vegetable farms in Mililani. But he said the stress has returned for all those whose livelihoods depend on irrigation water from Waiahole Ditch.

"Without the water, we're finished," he said. "There's no other sources."

Kunia farmer Larry Jefts, whose watermelons and bell peppers grow plump with Waiahole water, speculates it would be the end of farming on the Leeward plain if the ditch ran dry.

"That's not a hard call," Jefts said. "No water, and we're not here."

Click on the graphic to see a full-size image.

Next week, the state Commission on Water Resource Management is expected to release a draft decision on the allocation of 24 million gallons of water a day that flows through the controversial 25.3-mile ditch, said Rae Loui, the commission's deputy director.

The commission since November 1995 has also heard strong arguments from those who want to see the water flow to the Windward side. The points they advocate are stream restoration, protecting the environment, native Hawaiian culture and gathering rights, the recharging of Kaneohe Bay fishery and the survival of taro farming in Windward valleys.

The Waiahole-Waikane Community Association and others have asked for the return of all ditch water to Windward streams, while Leeward landowners such as Castle & Cooke, Campbell Estate and Robinson Estate want water use permits to continue diversified agriculture on former sugar cane land. Also, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, Kamehameha Schools/Bishop Estate and the state Department of Hawaiian Home Lands want to reserve a portion of the water for future agriculture or other uses.

Dispute began in '95

The water war began in 1995 when the demise of sugar in Hawaii forced the 98-year-old Oahu Sugar Co. to close. Several parties clamored for the water, prompting the commission, which regulates water resources based on the state Water Code, to conduct hearings on the distribution of the flow.

Waiahole Irrigation Co. built the ditch between 1912 and 1916 and operates it as a water delivery system, charging an average 35 cents per 1,000 gallons of water. A temporary agreement since June 30, 1995, has allowed 9.4 million gallons of water a day to flow through the ditch, while restoring 14.6 million gallons to the Windward side.

Loui said if all goes as planned, those involved in the hearings will have 30 days to file exceptions or objections to the decision. The five-member commission will then make a final ruling in mid-

June, with the only recourse being an injunction filed with the Hawaii Supreme Court.

"I haven't been through one of these before," Loui said. "But if the commission has gone through all of this logic to come up with a decision, it's kind of hard (for them) to reverse that."

By George F. Lee, Star-Bulletin
Byron Alcos, superintendent of the Waiahole Irrigation Co.,
shines a light on the source of the Waiahole water at the north portal..

Wooden regulation

Just what determines the flow of the water? Amazingly, it depends entirely on a 7 feet by 7 feet, 3-inch thick redwood board that is locked away deep in Waiahole Valley.

Waiahole Irrigation Superintendent Byron Alcos, who oversees the five-man crew that maintains the ditch, said changing the flow is simple: raise the board a few chain links to the next marker and more water flows toward Leeward fields; lower it and additional water is diverted sideways into a man-made stream bed that merges with Waiahole Stream in the valley and onward into Kaneohe Bay.

"That's the original board from 1916," Alcos said during a tour of the ditch last week.

The system, he said,intercepts water from natural dikes, beginning at the 790-foot elevation in Kahana Valley, and uses a series of connecting tunnels to ferry the water. The journey toward the Leeward side begins in Waiahole Valley at what is known as the North Portal main tunnel, a cave dug out a quarter-mile deep at the 752-foot elevation level in the Koolau Mountains.

There, the water disappears in a deafening rush into the pitch-black, chilling recesses of the mountain. It reappears three miles later at the 699-foot level at Waiawa in Leeward Oahu. Gravity transports the ditch water across the Leeward plain, where farmers and other users pump it out. The ditch ends at a large reservoir in Honouliuli.

On this day, a meter kept dry by a continuously burning kerosene lantern in the North Portal indicates 4 millions gallons a day have passed the station. Another 4 million gallons of water a day naturally seeps into the ditch between the North Portal and Waiawa, giving operators the total amount flowing through the ditch.

But no matter which way you send the water, the flow will remain perpetual, Alcos said.

"You cannot shut down the system unless you dam it up and concrete it," he said.

Taro-growing reawakened

Meanwhile, Windward farmers say the water already returned to Waiahole has had an impact on marine life. Charlie Reppun, a Waiahole farmer and community leader, said others have reported re-populated native fish in Windward streams and rejuvenated fisheries in Kaneohe Bay.

Moreover, Reppun said the ditch controversy has renewed interest in taro cultivation, with people around Oahu asking Waiahole farmers for information in restoring taro patches for sustenance as well as culture. In Waiahole, Reppun said volunteers recently restored a 1-acre taro patch once obscured by thick Hau bush.

"Off and on, I think a total of 200 people have worked up there from all over the place," Reppun said. "This past year, there's been so much interest in this issue. People are calling up. They want to come and see, and they want to work in taro patches. We've done lots and lots of tours."

Reppun said the Waiahole-Waikane Community Association has spent roughly $55,000 to present its case before the commission, with $840,000 in legal fees waived by the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, which represents the association.

Sierra Club attorney Paul Achitoff believes evidence presented to the water commission shows why the water belongs to the Windward side. But if that is not the decision, the association likely will seek an injunction through the Hawaii Supreme Court, he said.

"We consider this to be an extremely important matter for the future of the island, and people are not about to walk away from it because the Water Commission gives a poor decision," Achitoff said of next week's decision.

"But we're still optimistic that they'll do the right thing."

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