One of the more valuable lessons learned over the last year as the result of the Ka Loko Reservoir Dam breach is the need to assess the dams in the state on a regular basis.
The circumstances leading up to the Ka Loko breach were a tragedy of folly with a paper trail illustrating each of the missteps.
With hindsight clearly focused, each circumstance alone does not a crime make, but taken in totality, it is a crime of the worst kind … stupidity.
No one managed that reservoir; many saw what was going on, and many chose to ignore the indications. Others spoke up, only to have their voices ignored.
It took the silencing of seven voices to get where we are now.
The legacy of the reservoirs on Kaua‘i hearken back to a day when an industry was responsible for maintaining them. When the modern world made that industry obsolete, we were left with the vast waterworks and no management structure. As kuleana for the system passed from hand to hand, the leaks were bound to get worse.
Add some questionable behavior by a landowner, a complicit county government and an understaffed state agency tasked with oversight, and this is what we get. A massive after-the-fact response to a lack of common sense. In all fairness though, a lack of funding also played a role.
The Robert Carson Godbey independent civil investigation report released in January gives a clear picture of the interplay and politics leading up to the failure.
It would make a good serial drama, as each scene pushes us closer to the edge of our seats and releases us at the final, inescapable act.
But where a serial drama would leave off, we, as a community, county and state have the opportunity to learn from our mistakes.
And learning we are.
Since the breach, the Department of Land and Natural Resources has been allocated $5 million and two more people to help with its dam inspection role.
The Department of Agriculture is seeking $10,250,000 for safety improvements to the state’s irrigation reservoirs.
The state Legislature has taken notice, with three bills wending their way through the Capitol building.
The county has provided local support for these changes, while carrying out the cleanup that occurred in the Wailapa streambed. That cleanup included massive amounts of human-created and natural debris as well as toxic substances.
The county also responded to the islandwide flooding that occurred at the same time as the breach, carrying the island through very trying times.
In the years to come, as the interest wanes and the lawsuits are settled or adjudicated, these safeguards will find their real-world applications.
It is a tragic loss, the seven who died.
But if their memory pricks at those tasked with the oversight, and doesn’t allow stupidity to creep back into the picture, the cost still will not be worth it, but the benefits are now very real world.