No state dam checks since '04
The DLNR concedes it has inspected none of some 140 dams in more than a year
No dams in Hawaii were inspected by the state in more than a year before the deadly Ka Loko Dam breach last Tuesday, officials acknowledged yesterday.
In a written response to questions from the Star-Bulletin last week, the Department of Land and Natural Resources said that "no dam inspections were made during 2005 and early 2006 by DLNR." The department is the sole state agency responsible for roughly 140 dams since June 1987, when the Hawaii Dam Safety Act was passed. The last time the DLNR inspected a Hawaii dam was in December 2004, DLNR records indicate. In all, the department inspected 55 dams that year.
The disclosure comes after last week's acknowledgment by DLNR officials that they have no records of ever inspecting the 115-year-old dam at privately owned Ka Loko Reservoir.
But a national study indicates Hawaii is not alone when it comes to falling behind on dam upkeep.
In March 2005 the American Society of Civil Engineers reported that nationwide the number of unsafe dams had risen to 3,500, a 33 percent increase since 1995. The society said that $10.1 billion over the next 12 years would be needed to address all nonfederal dams (federal dams are considered safe) that "pose a risk to human life should they fail."
"Nobody wants to squeal about infrastructure, until it fails. They want money spent on other things. But when it (infrastructure like a dam, bridge or road) fails and people die, anywhere in the U.S., they want answers," said one ASCE official who asked for anonymity.
When Ka Loko Dam breached on Kauai early Tuesday morning, about 330 million gallons of water rushed to the sea near Kilauea, sweeping seven people away. Three bodies have been found, and the search continues today for the other four.
In their two-page statement, DLNR officials said that the department's yearly budget for dam safety and flood control is about $164,000, which staffs three positions (only $2,000 is not used to pay salaries).
In the late 1990s the three positions established were program engineer, senior engineer and draftsman. The three staff were equally divided to deal with dam safety and flood control.
Last June, the program engineer retired. Since then the senior engineer has filled both jobs overseeing about 300 dams in the state.
Most of the state's dams, which tend to be built of earth and rock, were built to irrigate plantations and were constructed before any dam safety regulations were authorized. The state said that due to funding, the inventory and inspections were last updated in 2002 and done since then with "minor updates" or inspections.
From 1993 until 1998, DLNR had funds to hire outside consulting firms that could conduct inspections of high-hazard dams. High-hazard dams are determined not because of questions about structural integrity, but based on the loss of life and property downstream if the dam failed. As development has proliferated downstream from plantation-era dams, the hazard ratings on government charts have fallen behind the realities of potential loss of human life and property.
In 1999, DLNR lost its funding for outside dam inspections and moved that operation in-house onto the three-person staff.
While the DLNR staff was responsible for flood control and dam safety, it also had other responsibilities that stretched responsibilities further. In addition to flood control and dam safety, the staff was also diverted to projects involving tsunami mapping for the state Civil Defense and the Manoa flood in October 2004.
The ASCE said in its report that "dams require ongoing maintenance, monitoring, frequent safety inspections and rehabilitation. Aging dams often require major rehabilitation to assure their safety. Downstream development below dams is increasing dramatically, and continuing scientific research of dam failure mechanisms, such as earthquakes and major flood events, frequently demand repairs to dams constructed long before these advances were realized."
"Many state dam safety programs do not have sufficient funding or qualified staff to regulate dams under their authority. State programs regulate 95 percent of the 79,000 dams in the United States, while federal agencies own or regulate only 5 percent of the nation's dams," the report said.
The study concludes, "The combined effect of rapid downstream development, aging/ noncompliant structures and inadequate past design practices, coupled with a predicted increase in extreme events, demands fully funded and staffed state dam safety programs, as well as substantial and proactive funding for dam repairs."