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Close Ka Loko and they can’t farm

Organic farmers in Kilauea, who are exporting produce and up until last week were using water from Ka Loko Reservoir in Kilauea to irrigate their crops, told lawmakers and other government leaders in no uncertain terms yesterday that closing the reservoir permanently would put them out of business.

“They’ll be out of business without water from Ka Loko,” said Sue Keller, administrative assistant at the Kauai County Farm Bureau and one of around 75 people in attendance at a standing-room-only meeting in a private Kilauea barn yesterday.

County water, if it’s available, is expensive, under low pressure, and contains chlorine, which is counterproductive to their organic-farming goals, Keller said.

There are around 20 farmers, mostly in the Kilauea Farms subdivision on Waiakalua Road, who know they will have to do without water from Ka Loko for awhile, but are very worried about government leaders’ talk about closing permanently the reservoir that is their crops’ lifeblood, she explained.

They are facing many issues now, as their farms are underwater. After the waters recede, oftentimes there are fungal, rust, root rot and other problems, some which don’t show themselves until much later, she said.

“Most of them are just underwater at this point,” Keller said of the organic farms downstream from Ka Loko.

There was some discussion about being able to tap into Waiakalua Reservoir for farm-irrigation water, she said.

Despite the challenges, most of those at the meeting were in good spirits, and Keller and others see the flood disaster as a chance for farmers, organic and otherwise, to get together for the collective good.

“Organic, conventional farmers all have similar issues,” said Keller, whose family grows non-organic papayas and bananas on their Kilauea farm that was spared serious flood damage.

The meeting served as an educational experience for the lawmakers, and everyone else, she said.

The lawmakers, including state Sen. Gary Hooser, D-Kaua‘i-Ni‘ihau, state Rep. Mina Morita, D-Hanalei-Kapa‘a, state Rep. Ezra Kanoho, D-Lihu‘e-Koloa, and others, now have valuable information to take back and formulate legislation to assist the affected farmers, she said.

Kanoho is chair of the House Water, Land & Ocean Resources Committee. Hooser is vice chair of the Senate Water, Land and Agriculture Committee.

The meeting, and the events of last week, also served to put a heightened priority on something that was already important for those in agriculture on Kaua‘i, and members of the Kaua‘i delegation at the state Legislature, that being a bill — appropriating funds for maintenance of existing irrigation systems on the island, Keller said.

Other lawmakers in attendance included Jimmy Tokioka, vice chair of the Kaua‘i County Council; Council Member JoAnn A. Yukimura; state Rep. Felipe P. Abinsay Jr., D-Sand Island-Kalihi Kai-Kapalama, chair of the House Agriculture Committee; and state Rep. Clift Tsuji, D-South Hilo-Puna-Kea‘au, vice chair of the House Agriculture Committee.

Jimmy Nakatani represented U.S. Rep. Ed Case, D-Neighbor Islands-rural O‘ahu, and Ron Sakoda represented U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawai‘i.

Sandra Kunimoto, director of the state Department of Agriculture, said there is emergency loan money available to affected farmers.

Roy Oyama, president of the Kauai County Farm Bureau, was also in attendance, as was as Jerry Ornellas, a farm bureau member and president of the East Kauai Water Users Cooperative.

On a related note, Keller said Kauai County Farm Bureau leaders are asking all farmers, ranchers and owners and operators of nurseries to get in touch with them immediately, at 639-8423 or 828-2120.

They have important information on county, state and federal programs, she said.

“In addition, we will keep all of you apprised of procedures relating to reporting damage assessments and the assistance being offered,” she said.

“A coordinated effort is the only way for all of us to maximize our effectiveness, and for you to take full advantage of the resources being made available,” she said.

In other disaster-related news, Gov. Linda Lingle has submitted emergency legislation requesting over $14 million to fund the cost of storm recovery, hire consultants to determine the structural integrity of dams and reservoirs statewide, and assess potential immediate risks, according to a press release.

Of the $14 million, $3.2 million would come from federal sources, Lingle said in a letter to state Rep. Calvin Say, D-Kaimuki-St. Louis Heights-Palolo Valley, the speaker of the house.

Some $4 million, including the $3.2 million in federal funds, will go for repair work on Kuhio Highway near Kilauea.

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