THE KAUAI DAM TRAGEDY
Many dams in Hawaii share fragility of Ka Loko
Of the 53 dams across Hawaii that the federal government rates as "high hazard," an estimated 37 are privately owned and built from dirt and stone for irrigation during the glory days of sugar cane and pineapple over a century ago.
They are earthen and fragile, particularly during heavy rain, civil engineers say.
"This is a huge problem that we are seeing all across the country," said Brad Iarossi, a dam safety engineer working with the American Society of Civil Engineers, referring to breaches of old dams made of rock and earth.
Interestingly, the Ka Loko Dam on Kauai, was rated "low hazard" by the society in an annual "report card" issued in 2005 to alert taxpayers to the problems with the nation's infrastructure, including dams, bridges and roads.
"High Hazard" is a government classification given to dams not because they are structurally weak, but because, if they are breached like the levees in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in August, they would cause significant loss of life and property.
But development downstream from the dams does not always keep pace with state inspection standards.
The Department of Land and Natural Resources is designated to oversee most, if not all, dams in the state. The DLNR requested written questions from the Star-Bulletin and did not respond as of press time.
The Ka Loko Dam that breached Tuesday was rated "low hazard" because the government determined that if there was a breach, there would not be a significant loss of life or property.
"Obviously, the Kauai dams were misclassified as low hazard if there were any loss of human life. And there has been," ASCE's Iarossi said of Ka Loko and nearby Morita reservoirs, adding, "We're seeing dams like this fail all over the country."
Like the broken dam on Kauai, the most common dam built is made of earth and rock and about 60 percent are privately owned. And even "well-intentioned dam owners" don't have the financial means to keep their dams in repair, Iarossi said.
Iarossi said one problem is that many dams are old and not revenue-generating. He said there is no money to repair or upgrade the dams because there are no financial incentives such as low-interest loans to dam owners.
Kamehameha Schools, the largest private landowner in Hawaii, said it daily monitors its dams, which were built during the plantation era.
"The dynamics of rainfall and erosion don't change over the years, but we do have urban sprawl," Kamehameha spokesman Kekoa Paulsen said. "We used to have rivers and now we have housing developments (downstream)."
Paulsen said dams on Kamehameha lands are assessed by professionals "every day" to look for possible breaches.
"We have some active reservoirs, so we keep a close eye," Paulsen said.
A real estate agent on Kauai, who asked not to be named, said houses have been built in the path of the dam break over the past few years, which should have changed the hazard designation of the dam.