STAR-BULLETIN / APRIL 2006
Ka Loko Reservoir, shown here from a position looking across from a site where a dam failed last year, is now nearly empty for the first time. CLICK FOR LARGE
Ka Loko water woes ruin crops on Kauai
Farmers left parched from Ka Loko breach
STORY SUMMARY »
KILAUEA, Kauai » Nearly 17 months ago, Ka Loko Dam breached, and a wall of water took out two homes and killed seven people.
This week, farmers who depended on Ka Loko for water began suffering because of the breach.
The farmers say that they are experiencing a problem not seen in the area for 120 years -- a complete lack of water for their crops.
Organic farmer Amy Moorhead said she lost her lettuce crop and can't plant again unless it rains.
The combination of drought conditions and bureaucratic meddling, farmers say, has allowed the problem to reach crisis levels.
And, the farmers said, a new law could mean other farmers across the state could lose access to water from privately-owned reservoirs.
The Dam Safety Bill, passed into law earlier this year, makes private reservoir owners assume all the liability and all the costs to maintain the reservoir, making it much more expensive for landowners to have a reservoir on their property.
Ka Loko owner Jimmy Pflueger is willing to talk to farmers about rebuilding the dam, but isn't about to assume all liability for the work, his attorney said.
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KILAUEA, Kauai » Since its construction in 1890, Ka Loko Reservoir has provided water to the farms of Kilauea, particularly those along North Waiakalua Road.
This week, however, that source of water has all but dried up, leaving lettuce farmer Amy Moorhead and her neighbors without water, and, for some, without crops.
"It's over," said Moorhead from her 13-acre farm this week. "I'm sitting here, going, 'What am I going to do?'"
Moorhead, who has been growing organic tropical fruit, beets, potatoes, and lettuce on her 13-acre parcel for the past nine years, is one of 20 or so customers that has relied on Ka Loko for water for years before last year's dam breach.
The breach, coupled with the drought conditions, have left the reservoir nearly empty, likely for the first time since it was built.
With county water at a premium in the Kilauea area, the county cannot provide a large enough meter for Moorhead to keep her lettuce watered. And wells are expensive.
While some residents have made due with county water, which is triple the cost, other farmers along Waiakalua have decided to dig wells, which are expensive and carry no guarantee that water will not run out.
Moorhead, however, is resigned to the failure of her lettuce crop, at least for the time being.
Lettuce needs to be watered daily during the summer to keep it cool, and the county will not give her a big enough meter to meet her needs.
When lettuce gets too warm, she said, it goes to seed, turns a dull color and gets a bitter, acrid taste.
Within days of the water shutting off, the lettuce became unsalable, Moorhead added. Her eight fields, which can produce up to 2,000 pounds of lettuce per month, are now fallow, and she won't plant again until the fall rains come.
"We have reservoirs for (dry) times like this," she added.
Fearing for their livelihoods, farmers have asked for the state and county for help in rebuilding Ka Loko since the dam breach in March which killed seven people.
But the state has made it more difficult for farmers to get water from reservoirs, said Moorhead's neighbor, David Whatmore, who owns a fruit orchard.
The Dam Safety Bill, passed into law earlier this year, makes private reservoir owners assume all the liability and all the costs to maintain the reservoir. For many, it will be more cost-effective to remove the dam, and with it, one of the best sources of agriculture water around the state, Whatmore said.
It will not be long, Whatmore said, until private dam owners decommission their dams to keep from having to pay for inspections and maintenance.
Ka Loko Dam owner James Pflueger can relate -- he has been trying to get some answer from the state Department of Land and Natural Resources for over a year, his lawyer, William McCorriston, said this week.
Pflueger, McCorriston said, is willing to talk about rebuilding the dam for the farmers. But he's not going to assume all the liability for the work, not with the half-dozen lawsuits already filed against him in regards to the dam breach.
"Quite frankly, in our communications with the state, they don't seem to give a rip," McCorriston added.
DLNR spokeswoman Debbie Ward said she could not comment on Ka Loko without approval from the state Attorney General.
The county government, through the county council, has allocated $75,000 for an engineering study of Ka Loko and the irrigation system, which could be used by the farmers to seek more funding, said Beth Tokioka, director of the Office of Economic Development.
State Sen. Gary Hooser (D, Kauai-Niihau) said it is up to farmers and the state Department of Agriculture to come up with a plan. Then, he said, he can fight for funding.
"Once an initiative is put forward, I can work with Rep. (Mina) Morita (D-Hanalei-Kapaa) to get any funding necessary," he added.
Hooser said he has heard from farmers about Dam Safety Act problems, and he plans to introduce amendments to the bill in next year's legislative session.
For now, though, Whatmore said, all farmers can do is hope for rain.