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Fears turned prophetic; warnings ignored before breach

Nearly a decade ago, Michael Dyer noticed something amiss at Ka Loko Reservoir Dam: It lacked a spillway.

Aware of the potential devastation such a flaw could cause — Dyer had managed the reservoir for the Kilauea Sugar Co. for several years — he alerted the owner, James Pflueger, in 1998.

But his warnings were ignored.

Dyer got a call the day of the breach from a farmer in Kilauea Farms.

“I immediately knew what happened,” Dyer said. “He said there was a big wall of water across the highway, and I thought, ‘My God — the spillway didn’t get fixed.’”

After warnings to Pflueger failed, Dyer said he alerted state officials at the Department of Land and Natural Resources, but instead of being properly addressed, his concerns became a prophecy.

A year ago today, the Ka Loko Reservoir Dam breach killed seven people, destroyed homes and unearthed trees when 1.6 million tons of water burst out of the reservoir. A tragedy, Dyer feels, that might have been avoided were his concerns addressed.

According to the Ka Loko independent report, authored by Robert Godbey, special deputy attorney general, “The lack of a spillway at Ka Loko Dam, as well as other circumstantial evidence, would indicate that the dam likely failed by overtopping.”

Dyer photographed the area blamed for the breach and outlined ways to remedy the situation in a fax he sent to Pflueger in 1998, he said.

“His method of communication was to send him a fax and he’d call back if he wanted to talk to you — and I wrote that I ‘needed to talk to him about the spillway,’” Dyer said.

Dyer waited a week without a response before writing another, more “elaborate” fax, he said.

“I said, ‘With the spillway filled in, the water level was eventually going to rise,” he said. “I knew it could take months, but that the water could overtop the reservoir. … I suggested if he wanted the spillway filled in, he needed to retain the safety features and needed to dig back to the concrete spillway and place a culvert at the level of the spillway.”

That way, Dyer noted, Pflueger could keep the land flattened out, he said.

But Pflueger didn’t respond to that fax, either.

“I waited several months toward the end of ’98 and then I went out there one more time,” Dyer said. “I looked at reservoir, saw it was still filled in and nothing had been done.”

Dyer said in early 1999 he wrote a letter to the DLNR, hoping to put the matter into their hands.

“I sent them pictures we’d taken but nobody from the state called me,” he said. “Then Jimmy Pflueger called me and asked if I’d turned him in.”

That phone call made Dyer believe the state was handling it, he said.

“I figured, ‘After all, the water was the state’s,’ just like Pflueger’s attorneys are saying,” he said.

Bill McCorriston, Pflueger’s attorney did not comment for this story. However, in past interviews he has said that the idea of who is ultimately responsible relies heavily on the definition of whose “property” caused the damage.

“The state owns the water that goes into the reservoir,” McCorriston said. “What comes in and what goes out. Why are we just looking at the landowner?”

Dyer, whose warnings are cited in the Ka Loko report, said he was curious about the reservoir’s status in 1998.

“I started walking toward Ka Loko Reservoir and saw a pickup truck coming up behind me,” he said. “It was Pflueger, who I’d known for 20 years.”

When Dyer told him he wanted to look at the dam, Pflueger offered to drive him, he said.

“He took me up to the area along the rim where he was grading down a ridge to create some home sites,” he said, noting that he asked Pflueger’s permission to return with his wife to see the view, a sight the couple hadn’t seen since managing the reservoir in the ’80s. When they returned, they took pictures, Dyer said.

“We both saw right away that the safety feature for the dam had been graded and continued to the spillway,” he said. “The dirt was pushed down the hill and into the spillway itself.”

Dyer said he also recognized the implication of the spillway’s absence.

“We knew the spillway was an important safety valve for the reservoir,” he said.

Dyer walked the length of the Ka Loko ditch — the intake ditch that supplies the water into the reservoir — and found that the ditch was in poor shape and there wasn’t much water coming in and that the water level had dropped a few feet.

In light of that, he said, Dyer felt that he didn’t want to keep bugging Pflueger, who he knew for 20 years. So he recorded the data he found, including notes about leaks and blockages in the ditch, and left.

“That was the last time, to this day, that I’ve been up to the reservoir,” he said.

The state took control of surface water in 1987, however, Godbey’s report states that “The state is required by its own statutes to inspect all dams at least every five years. Ka Loko Dam was never inspected. If Ka Loko Dam had been inspected by trained dam inspectors, the lack of a spillway would surely have been noted.”

The report points to “inadequate state funds” and a lack of training as reasons the state might have failed.

Kaua‘i County officials also are mentioned as potentially liable, in part because of a lack of follow-up on illegal grading in 1997.

The “County sent a notice to stop all work at Ka Loko Dam when it found unlawful grading occurring.”

According to a document dated Nov. 26, 1997, former Mayor Marianne Kusaka told former county engineer John Buist Jr. not to follow up on Pflueger’s grading violations after an anonymous complaint was made about illegal grading near the reservoir.

• Amanda C. Gregg, staff writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 252) or agregg@kauaipubco.com.

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