STAR-BULLETIN / MARCH 2006
Members of the state House Judiciary Committee viewed this area of Ka Loko dam at Kilauea, Kauai, where a breach killed seven people in March.
Dam safety bill draws criticism
PUHI, Kauai » Several state lawmakers traveled to Kauai yesterday to discuss dam safety and to see the reason why it is needed.
Members of the state House Judiciary Committee took a helicopter trip to the North Shore and saw what is left of the Ka Loko Reservoir, which breached last March, killing seven people.
They then met at Kauai Community College to receive testimony on House Bill 1905, which would make changes to protect people who live downstream of dams. The bill's proposed changes include giving the state Department of Land and Natural Resources more power over dams on private property.
Judiciary Chairman Tommy Waters (D, Lanikai-Waimanalo) said the committee did not have a quorum at the meeting and would not make a decision on the bill until Tuesday.
As part of the bill, all dam owners would have to receive a certificate of approval for their property. Owners then must provide access to inspectors and to emergency personnel if there is a dangerous situation present.
Dam owners would also be responsible for paying for any remedial work the department prescribes.
The majority of about a dozen people who testified yesterday said that while dam safety is needed, the current bill will have far-reaching negative consequences, especially for small farmers and dam owners.
If the current bill is approved, said Kauai farmer David Whatmore, "it would put me and my fellow farmers out of business."
Whatmore, who along with about 20 farmers continues to use Ka Loko Reservoir as a source of water, said the current bill would cause many dam owners, and likely Ka Loko owner James Pflueger, to decommission the dam.
"The bill seems to (give the state) unlimited control over the pockets of dam owners," Whatmore added. "Under this bill owning a dam becomes a liability, not an asset."
Kapu Smith, a Kamehameha Schools employee who runs a system of reservoirs on Oahu, said that for the three reservoirs alone that she controls, the schools would have to put out about $3.5 million in repairs. At least two of the three dams would have no impact on lives if they breach, she added.
"There are ways of making this bill work," she said, but not in its current form.
Bruce Fehring, who lost his daughter, son-in-law and grandson in the March 14 Ka Loko tragedy, testified that he, too, has some reservations about the bill.
First, he said, it is supposed to be about public safety. The bill should focus on dams where, if breached, there would be a loss of life. He also said that dam owners and the state should work together on disclosing possible areas downstream that could be affected in a dam breach.
And, he added, a warning system should be implemented where a large water-level change in a reservoir would trigger a warning downstream.
Despite how it took 15 minutes for the water to reach his property, "Had my family and friends had (even) three minutes of warning, it could very well have meant their lives," Fehring added.
Fehring and several other speakers questioned the state removing itself from liability.