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Dam bill has Kaua‘i airing

A bill moving through the Legislature to promote dam safety across Hawai‘i should not relieve the state of any liability and should not be so oppressive as to force landowners to shut down dams, residents told officials last night.

Closing down dams will adversely affect commercial farmers who rely on stored water to survive, other audience members said, during two bill hearings at the Kaua‘i Community College.

“I support safety. But lets not make this bill so restrictive that we are going to cause people to decommission dams,” said David Whatmore, a 20-year North Shore farmer.

Fifteenth District House Rep. James Tokioka, who attended the meeting, said he understands their concerns and would submit bill amendments.

“The bill gives the state some immunity from liability, and we need to tighten up the language,” Tokioka said. “The state has to follow rules like every other landowner who would be affected.”

Members of the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing on a bill to create a program for monitoring and enforcing ways to ensure the safety of hundreds of dams across the state.

The second hearing dealt with a bill proposing to make permanent, temporary liability protection for county water safety officers and the counties and states for beach parks used by the public.

Rep. Tommy Waters of O‘ahu, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said he will consider last night’s comments and comments from others before voting on the legislation.

Bruce Fehring, who lost a daughter, a son-in-law and a grandson and four friends in the March 14, 2006, Ka Loko Reservoir Dam breach, said dam safety should be on the minds of all. “It is inherently the most important thing we are addressing today,” he said.

As a way to protect the community against another dam tragedy, he wondered why the bill can’t include a provision that would require the state or people selling land to tell property owners about existing dams.

And can’t that same requirement be imposed on farmers or others who take water from dams, he asked.

If the government has a warning system for tsunamis, why can’t it have a system to warn people when a “tremendous amount of water is leaving (a reservoir),” he said.

Had the seven victims of the Ka Loko dam breach had a three-minute warning, “It would very well have been their lives could have been saved,” Fehring said.

Gordon Rosa, representing the landowner James Pflueger, said he and his boss extend their condolences to Fehring for his loss.

At the same time, Pflueger is not to be blamed for the tragedy, he said.

“The dam is over 100 years old, and Jimmy Pflueger had nothing to do with that flooding … nothing,” he said, a claim that will be borne out in upcoming court trials.

If blame is to be placed, it should be placed on the shoulders of government, he said.

Seepages in the dam were reported in 1982 and 1984, but government didn’t act, Rosa said. He also said the dam’s spillway was not compromised.

A representative for Kamehameha Schools said their organization controls seven dams that provide water for agricultural operations on O‘ahu and the Big Island.

While she also supports dam safety, and the bill has great importance to Kaua‘i residents who suffered in the dam breach, legislators have a responsibility to protect important agricultural land, she said.

The Kamehameha official said the school undertook engineering studies for the dams and found none to pose a hazard to the public.

She said the legislators will do right by the public by allowing the state Department of Land and Natural Resources to identify dangerous dams before any requirement is made to have landowners spend funds to shore up dams.

Don Cataluna, the Kaua‘i representative on the state Office of Hawaiian Affairs, supported the bill outright, saying implementation of the bill “has a significant potential to prevent tragic loss of life and property.”

The state also might be able to tap into federal funds to augment state funds for dam safety programs, Cataluna said.

Peter Young, chairman of the DLNR board, said he had issues with bill language defining what a dam is.

“One area of concern is that one version calls for all dams,” Young said. “We are working with contractors to see regulated and non-regulated dams and their size.”

Young said DLNR supports the bill, but would propose modifications.

Also attending the meeting were 16th District House Rep. Roland Sagum III, Mayor Bryan Baptiste, Kaua‘i County Council Chairman Kaipo Asing and councilmembers Mel Rapozo, Jay Furfaro and Tim Bynum.

• Lester Chang, staff writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 225) or lchang@kauaipubco.com.

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