Ka Loko provides a cautionary tale for state officials
The state attorney general has opened an investigation of the Kauai reservoir's collapse.
THE state's investigation of the breach at Ka Loko Reservoir
tracks along the typical pattern that follows the kind of tragic loss of life and destruction that occurred on Kauai.
An analysis of what happened and why is necessary for government officials and the community to understand and to figure out how to avoid another episode like the one that swept away seven people, destroyed homes and undermined the area's only road.
Governor Lingle says it is too early and unseemly to point a finger of blame when the threat of further damage remains with bad weather continuing across the islands. But clearly the state has been remiss -- perhaps for decades -- in its duty to conduct inspections of the reservoirs. It must step up to its obligations.
The Department of Land and Natural Resources says it has no record of ever inspecting Ka Loko, though it had attempted at one time to contact the owner of the land on which the reservoir sits for a survey.
Ka Loko, formed in 1890 to irrigate sugar crops, is one of about 130 reservoirs in Hawaii. Few even knew about them before the breach or considered them possible hazards, though each is classified as to the dangers they present to areas downstream.
In October, the American Society of Civil Engineers listed only 22 dams in Hawaii with deficiencies that raised high safety concerns and Ka Loko wasn't among them. In fact, Ka Loko is categorized as low hazard, meaning a failure was not expected to lead to loss of life or damage to permanent structures.
With its financial priorities elsewhere, the state has had only one full-time employee assigned to inspections and, in hindsight, that leaves officials open to criticism. But as with similar disasters, the "should haves" and "could haves" mount after the fact.
Human habitation often develops in places that may not be entirely suitable. San Francisco, for example, is perched on an earthquake fault zone. Closer to home, shorelines vulnerable to tsunamis and hurricanes are covered with resorts and hotels, and houses are built under or right next to eroding ridges. Sprawling subdivisions are even put up on slopes of active volcanoes or in the paths of lava flows.
In a land-tight state, choices for homes and business are limited, but it is important to take into account eventualities. Many so-called natural disasters occur because of failure to anticipate the results of manipulating or altering our physical surroundings.
The governor has properly urged caution as some have called for dismantling other dams, and the attorney general's investigation should yield answers about the reservoir's failure. But the lesson in Ka Loko should extend further. Hawaii must make land-use decisions with a reckoning for the vagaries of nature.