Water-savers large and small get awards from soil and water conservation group

LIHU’E – Gary Ueunten uses county water only about four or five times a year to irrigate five acres of fruits and vegetables on his farm in Lawa’i.

The rest of the time, he uses rainwater that flows off the roof of his home, and piped and moved by gravity around a quarter-mile down to his farm.

He has a two-weeks’ supply of stored rainwater, so only needs to rely on county water for his crops if it doesn’t rain for two straight weeks.

For his efforts, he was given a water-conservationist award from the East and West Kaua’i Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD).

His wife Glenna markets the citrus, lychee, longan, green onions, daikon and other produce at the county’s sunshine markets.

Curtis Tom, chair of the county Board of Water Supply, said he is impressed with Ueunten’s set-up and ingenuity, and pleased Ueunten has found the system an economical way to farm the acreage he leases from Alexander & Baldwin, Inc.

On the other side of the island, the East Kaua’i Water Users Cooperative was honored with a similar award, for keeping the water flowing on a state-owned water system formerly operated by Amfac Sugar Kaua’i for its former Lihu’e Plantation Company fields.

The co-op currently has around 35 paying members, who purchase water to support “the whole spectrum of diversified agriculture,” said Jerry Ornellas, co-op president.

New members join each month, he said.

Ranchers, growers of bananas, taro, vegetables, tropical flowers, even entertainer Bette Midler and the Kaua’i Hindu Monastery (Saiva Siddhanta Church) in Wailua Homesteads, are among co-op members, he said.

An orderly transition from Amfac to co-op management of the system occurred when Amfac got out of sugar on the island entirely near the end of 2000, Ornellas explained.

The system was designed to flood-irrigate sugar fields, and current uses require less water of the system, he said. Also, new technologies employed make for much more efficient use of the precious commodity, said Ornellas.

The co-op was formed shortly after Amfac representatives made the announcement to get out of sugar on Kaua’i, as an organization to maintain the irrigation system.

The 21-mile system of flumes, tunnels, reservoirs, ditches and conduits was originally designed to irrigate some 12,500 acres of cane land.

It includes the Wailua Reservoir and Upper Kapahi Reservoir, and the co-op has entered into agreements with the state Department of Land and Natural Resources for establishment of wildlife wetlands along the system, as well as a potential use of one of the reservoirs for recreational fishing.

“The system has multiple uses,” Ornellas commented. It is important also to remember that the state owns the system, he added. “We’re just stewards.”

Though the co-op stands to receive $200,000 in state funds over the next two years for operation and maintenance of the system if bills still alive in the state Legislature pass, not getting that money won’t mean the water will stop flowing, he said.

“Our goal has always been to become self-sufficient,” Ornellas said. With more paying members, that goal will become reality, he feels.

Ted Inouye, chair of the East Kaua’i SWCD and island vice president of the Hawai’i Association of Conservation Districts, made the plaque presentations outside the county Department of Water Thursday on behalf of both the East Kaua’i and West Kaua’i organizations.

Peter Tausend is chair of the West Kaua’i SWCD.

Inouye said both award-winners have made “outstanding efforts” to conserve water, and that helps the county Department of Water better manage its potable water supplies.

He said he hopes the new awards will be given annually to farmers, ranchers or organizations that make outstanding efforts at water conservation.

Staff Writer Paul C. Curtis can be reached at mailto:pcurtis@pulitzer.net or 245-3681 (ext. 224).

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