Kauai dam breach leaves doubts about spillway
KILAUEA, Kauai » While the state investigates the cause of the deadly Ka Loko Dam breach last week, conflicting reports have emerged on one of the dam's main safety components.
At issue is the location and fate of the dam's spillway, an area that functions like a safety valve to keep water from overflowing the top of the dam.
State and federal dam inspectors couldn't find a spillway during an inspection Monday, state Adjutant General Robert Lee said yesterday at a press conference.
Asked later if that means the dam had no spillway, Lee said, "if it's there, it is buried by dirt or debris."
Investigators will try again to locate a spillway, Lee said. And if they do, they will try to discern whether any material covering the spillway was deposited by the floodwaters or placed there earlier, he said.
But representatives of the dam's owner, retired auto dealer James Pflueger, said the spillway is a grassy area that is still there. It was never used on March 14 when the dam breached, sending a wall of water toward the sea and sweeping away seven people.
A Pflueger spokesman, who asked not to be named, said the height of the water never reached the spillway or the top of the dam, for that matter.
Bill McCorriston, Pflueger's attorney, told KHON-2, "I really can't understand why General Lee can't find it because actually the National Guard was camped out right adjacent to the spillway."
"The spillway is readily visible, which suggests to us that the water never even reached the spillway level," he said.
Yet Bob Masuda, deputy director of the Department of Land and Natural Resources, told the Star-Bulletin last night that "the area where we understood where the spillway was -- is part of the breached area."
While the state has not identified the location of Ka Loko's spillway, two long-time workers around Ka Loko Reservoir said they remember a spillway partially lined with concrete more than 100 feet north of the breach area.
Allan Rietow, who lives near the reservoir and was in charge of its upkeep from 1977 to 1988, said that he had only seen the spillway work about three or four times in the 11 years he was there.
"I always wanted to see the spillway overflow," he said. "It was an event."
The spillway, built out of the bedrock, was about 20 feet across, he said, adding that part of the road that crossed the spillway was lined with concrete.
Rietow ran a prawn farm, with Pflueger as his partner, downstream of Ka Loko, as well as a 10-kilowatt hydroelectric plant. He also had some papaya trees that used water from Ka Loko.
Tom Hitch, owner of Kilauea Irrigation Co., said he drove over the concrete portion of the spillway numerous times.
"Kaloko had a spillway," Hitch said. "It overflowed a couple of times -- 20, 25 years ago."
Hitch disputed the contention that the water never reached the spillway level, saying that by looking at the level of vegetation along the rim, "it's quite clear it overflowed."
Hitch, who supplies water for 20 or so farmers through a pipeline system, also said that more water was coming into the reservoir than had in the past 40 years.
In the past six or seven months, crews had cleaned up the Moloaa and Ka Loko ditches, the only source of water to the reservoir. The ditches, which contain tunnels and other areas that get clogged with debris and slow down the flow, are flowing well, he said.
"They're whistling," he added.
Another area worker, however, said he was under the impression that the spillway was on the dam and was washed away with the rest of the mud and trees.
Mark Comstock, a neem tree and sweet potato farmer who also waters Pflueger's makai property, said that the reservoir was far from full before the breach and likely just all went at once.
"We were here the day before" the breach, Comstock told the Star-Bulletin last week. "The dam blew out rather than overflowed."
The state attorney general last week announced a wide-ranging investigation into the breach. The investigation is expected to include aerial and satellite images of the dam before and after the breach.
Pflueger's co-owner of the Ka Loko Reservoir, the Mary Lucas Trust, is "in the process" of hiring outside counsel for the dam breach, and has been cooperating with the state investigators, court-appointed trustee Carroll Taylor said yesterday.
The Honolulu attorney has been the trustee since 2004, when a settlement among at least a dozen beneficiaries was reached. Paul Cassiday and Pflueger, Lucas' grandson, were previously the trustees.
Star-Bulletin reporter Diana Leone contributed to this report.