HAWAII AT WORK
DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Waterflow along the Waiahole Irrigation System is controlled partially by a series of gates. Earlier this month, Gate No. 31, located in a tunnel drilled on the Windward side of the Koolau range, was not responding to phone commands, so water systems manager Vernon Pico had to trek up to the site and manually open the gate to let more water go through.
Watching the water flow
Vernon Pico and his crew "ride the ditch" to keep the Waiahole Irrigation System free of obstructions
Title: Water systems manager
Job: Supervises a crew of five who maintain the Waiahole Irrigation System
Vernon Pico is the man to call if there is a problem with the Waiahole Irrigation System. The 26.5-mile-long system, also called "the ditch," runs from Kahana Valley on the Windward side to the Kunia area on the Leeward side and supplies hundreds of farmers with the water they need to grow diversified crops.
The system these days is owned by the Agribusiness Development Corp., an agency attached to the state Department of Agriculture, which bought it in 1999 from Amfac JMB/Hawaii.
Amfac JMB's Oahu Sugar Co. subsidiary had built the system early in the last century, but the company exited the sugar business in 1995, leaving the infrastructure -- which includes miles of tunnel that run through the Koolau Range -- available for other uses.
Pico actually started with Oahu Sugar, in 1975, as a carpenter making repairs to the irrigation system.
When the sugar company folded, Amfac invited him to be supervisor of the system's maintenance crew, and the current owner retained him in that position.
Pico, 51, is a graduate of Campbell High School in Ewa Beach. He also took some classes at Leeward Community College, but left school to join Oahu Sugar.
"They opened up an apprenticeship program (for carpenters) through the company. That's why I went in," he said last week.
Pico is married to the former Lorna Ibana, with whom he lives in Ewa. They have two sons and two daughters.
Mark Coleman: What's your job title?
Vernon Pico: I'm the Waiahole Irrigation System manager. I also take care of another system. I oversee what's going on with the other system.
Q: Which one is that?
A: It's on Kauai. It's the Kekaha water system. It's a state system.
Q: What does that supply?
A: It supplies the water to the diversified agriculture in Kekaha.
Q: On Oahu, the system you manage, what does that do?
A: Generally, the system is made up of open ditches and tunnels.
Q: That stretch from where to where?
A: It starts up in Kahana Valley on the Windward side, and it ends in Kunia (on the Leeward side). The total length is approximately 26.5 miles. We have 10 miles of ditches and 15 miles of tunnel, and 1.4 miles of siphons, to bring the water across the gulches.
Q: And what's the purpose of the system?
A: Mainly to deliver the water to the farmers on the Leeward side, but we have a court order to make sure that we release a certain amount of the water into streams on the Windward side.
Q: And what are your duties in relation to the system?
A: We maintain the system.
Q: What does that involve?
A: We kind of clean up the ditches and, you know, make sure the water is flowing. We clear landslides that block our access roads on the Windward side -- fallen trees and stuff like that. On the Leeward side, we repair the ditches, because the ditches, they're old, yeah?
Q: What are they made of?
A: The ditches have a cement lining, about a half-inch to an inch thick, so a lot of places they crack. And, of course, you get trees along the system where the roots get into the system, so we take 'em out and try to patch up all the cracks.
DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Vernon Pico regularly visits places most of us rarely, if ever, get to see as water system manager for the Waiahole Irrigation System. Above, Pico earlier this month unlocked the fence gate on his way to a water tunnel.
So you do some mason work there?
Q: How many people do you supervise?
A: Right now I have five -- an office manager and four utility workers.
Q: Do you all go out as a crew together?
A: We have two on the Windward side and two on the Leeward side. They have their routine things they do, but for bigger jobs, like repairs, we come together.
Q: Do you enjoy being outside a lot?
A: Yeah. It's pretty much better than being in one place all the time.
Q: Do you have some pretty steep terrain to deal with?
A: Yes, we have.
Q: You must have some great views?
A: Yeah, we have. We get to places in the mountain that hardly anybody goes to.
Q: Those must be some of your best times out in the field.
A: Yeah, pretty much. We get to go on these access trails that take us to the system, where we're not able to drive to.
Q: What kind of vehicles do you drive for the job?
A: I drive a Ford Explorer (Sport) Trac. All of our vehicles are four-wheel drive, because we go into the mountains. We maintain access roads to certain parts of the tunnel. And we have an ATV (all-terrain vehicle) that can take us to certain places in the tunnel. And other places we have a kayak that we float along in. And we also do a lot of walking.
Q: What about light in the tunnel?
A: We have head lamps. Right now we're using propane lanterns. We also maintain gauging systems along the system, to gauge the water in the tunnel.
Q: What kinds of tools do you take with you?
A: Oh, picks and shovels, and mason tools.
Q: How big are the ditches and tunnels?
A: The ditch is approximately 7 feet wide on average. At the bottom it's 7 feet, and on top it's approximately 10 feet wide. The tunnel has an average diameter of about 7 feet.
Q: Do you ever have to scare away skateboarders or anything like that from the ditch?
A: Well, we actually have a problem with people going into the ditch and making pools.
Q: Why would they do that?
A: They block off the grading so the ditch will fill up so they can swim.
Q: How often do you come across that?
A: It depends. Summertime is more often than other times. We have to ride the ditch maybe twice a week to make sure the system is clear. People take boogie boards into the ditch.
How do you know if any emergency cleaning is needed somewhere along the line?
A: Well, the thing is, weekly we have the guys go through the tunnel, and they pick up the (gauge) information at the same time they check the tunnels. If there's a storm or something, after the storm we check to see if there is any damage to the tunnel, to see if anything is blocking the water flow. It's part of our ongoing maintenance.
Q: Do you prefer to work the ditches or the tunnels?
A: Doesn't matter. (Laughter)
Q: Is the water drinkable straight from the ditch?
A: We don't advise it. (Laughter) But it's really clean water, because it's flowing all the time.
Q: What kind of things do you find in the ditch?
A: Run-off silt, from the rains, and green limu.
Q: You mean algae?
A: Yeah, algae.
Q: Do you ever find dead animals?
A: Not wild animals really, but dogs and stuff, yeah. We don't know if people are throwing them in -- cats, too -- but it's an open system, so people can do that.
Q: Is there any fencing alongside the ditch?
A: Only in the residential areas, like Mililani. Through the farm areas, it's just a ditch.
Q: Where are those areas?
A: The farm areas is what we call the Koa Ridge area, right before Kipapa Gulch -- that's Dole's property. Then we have some of it in Mililani -- the Mililani Agriculture Park. And then, of course, the Robinson (Estate) area, which is from Waikakalaua Gulch to Kunia Road.
Q: What's the best part of the workday for you -- the end of it?
A: Yeah, pretty much. (Laughter) But, no, it's knowing that I made sure everybody has enough water. I have to adjust the water. I cannot bring over more water than is allowed by court order. Whenever the farmers are not using the water, I need to let it out into the Windward streams.