Aging sugar plantation irrigation systems could be boost to diversified ag

Staff Writer

Restoring irrigation systems now idle due to the closing of most of Kaua’i’s sugar plantations is in the works.

The project would direct water to fields planted with a variety of food crops.

A top U.S. Department of Interior official met with Mayor Maryanne Kusaka and farming leaders Thursday to look at ways at repairing and maintaining former sugar plantation irrigation systems that diversified agriculture farmers eventually hope to use.

John Keys, commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, also met with state Department of Agriculture and the state Department of Land and Natural officials and took a helicopter tour of irrigation systems on Kaua’i.

Sections of the system date back to the 19th century when G.N. Wilcox of Grove Farm and other Kaua’i planters began irrigating fields stretching along the coast from the Mana Plain to Hanalei.

Keys said the survey revealed “no major conclusions at this time,” but that “there is a lot of work that needs to be done.”

If implemented, such a repair project would benefit Kaua’i’s economy by supporting diversified agriculture, an important section of the agricultural industry that has emerged with the passing of most of the sugar industry in Hawai’i, Keys said.

Keys’ Interior Department agency is tasked with managing, developing and protecting water and resources in 17 western states.

The agency has constructed dams, power plants and canals to supply irrigation and electricity for homesteading and economic development.

Keys, who is based in Washington D.C., visited irrigation systems on O’ahu, Maui and Kaua’i between Aug. 12 and Aug.17. While on O’ahu, he met with Gov. Ben Cayetano and O’ahu-based officials with DOA and the DLNR.

Keys said he came to Hawai’i at the request of Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawai’i) to “assist the state in the rehabilitation of some of the irrigation systems that have fallen into bad repair after the cane and pineapple plantations have closed down.”

During his visit to Kaua’i, Keys said he and his staff met with representatives from the East Kauai Irrigation Cooperative and the West Kauai Irrigation Cooperative at a Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc. facility in Kekaha.

Having fully-operational irrigation systems is pivotal to the success of diversified agriculture on Kaua’i, Keys indicated.

He said his agency wants to help farmers who “are still trying to repair the system and want to maintain it so that there will be a delivery of water for diversified agricultural crops in east and west Kaua’i.”

Keys said his agency has provided $260,000 to the state to “look at the facilities and to evaluate what is there.”

“We have a contract with the state Department of Agriculture and the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, and our people will assist the agencies to evaluate the systems and to see what is necessary,” Keys said.

Keys said people conducting the assessment will try to determine how many miles of the irrigation systems are still usable and what has to be repaired and maintained.

A final report on the evaluation will be done either by his agency or the state Department of Agriculture and will be sent to Congress.

His agency, Keys said, will help the state find funds for the repair and maintenance of the irrigation systems, adding “it could be local money, a loan program or other federal funding.”

He said state officials, Kaua’i farmers and supporters of the diversified agricultural industry are committed to repairing the island’s irrigation systems.

“They are just nice people, and we are going to do everything we can to help them do that,” Keys said.

Keys began his return trip to Washington D. C. Saturday afternoon.

On his trip to Hawai’i, Keys was accompanied by Robert Johnson, a Bureau regional director from Colorado, and John Johnson and Amy Porter, Bureau coordinators from Boulder City, Nev.

Established in 1902, the Bureau of Reclamation addresses the issues of increasing water demands of the western states while protecting the environment and the public’s investment in structures it builds.

The agency is considered the largest “wholesaler” of water in the country, with more than 31 million users.

The agency provides 140,000 western farmers – about one out of five in the region – with water that irrigates some 10 million acres of farmland. Growers using the land produce 60 percent of the nation’s vegetables and 25 percent of its fruits and nuts.

The agency also is the second largest producer of hydroelectric power in the west, and has strategic plans outlining programs, initiatives and activities to help western states, Native American tribes and others meet new water needs and balance competing uses.

Staff Writer Lester Chang can be reached at or 245-3681 (ext. 225).


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