In 2001, the East Kauai Water Users Cooperative was formed to take over management of the state-owned irrigation system in our area previously operated by Lihue Plantation. At that time, DLNR indicated that they were not going to operate the system and would shut it down.
For the past 18 years, the coop has successfully operated the system to the benefit of local farmers and ranchers under a revocable permit from the Department of Land and Natural Resources for Wailua, Upper Kapahi and Reservoir 21 and miles of ditch capable of delivering water to about 2,000 acres of farm land and ranches.
From the beginning it was our intent to eventually hand the state-owned system back to the state to run, specifically the Department of Agriculture. On its part, DOA has been willing to take over the system, if the legislature provided funding for them to run it.
The Coop was managing on about $100,000/year in membership dues and government grants to do the day-to-day maintenance. In addition, the state provided capital improvement funds to bring Wailua and Upper Kapahi reservoirs within the full requirements of the Dam Safety Regulations after the Ka Loko Dam disaster in 2006.
Bills introduced at the Legislature in recent sessions to transfer the system to DOA all failed. During the 2018-2019 state legislative session, the Coop made great effort to pass Senate Bill 223, which would have authorized and funded DOA to take over the system. This bill attracted no opposition and much support but failed in the last days of the session in conference committee.
Over this same time period, from 2001, water rights issues became contentious in the state, especially with A&B on Maui which for decades had diverted water to the island’s central plains.
The issues have yet to be settled, but one policy changed: DLNR would no longer indefinitely issue revocable permits for water systems. Instead, users must apply for long-term licenses — a very expensive and time-consuming process with no guaranteed outcome and far beyond the Coop’s means.
Even after explaining at hearing after hearing during the 2018-2019 legislative session that there was no way for the Coop to fulfill the license process and that DOA had to take over the system or it would revert to DLNR, still SB 223 failed — and this in what should have been an ideal legislative climate.
The Coop was left with no choice but to not renew its permit for 2020 and return control of the system to the Department of Land and Natural Resources as of Dec. 31, 2019.
DLNR has yet to formally decide what exactly they will do with the system. In the event of a complete shutdown, farmers and ranchers would have to find other sources as the diversions would be closed and the reservoirs and ditches abandoned.
The impact on about 800 acres of state ADC lands in Kalepa could be severe, as well as upon the hundreds of acres of Department of Hawaiian Homelands property adjacent to Kuhio Highway and stretching from Wailua River to KCCC.
At a time when the state is looking to increase food self sufficiency, it seems very short-sighted to abandon this important and irreplaceable resource. It is with great sadness that we see the system we’ve worked two decades to maintain as our service to the community face such an uncertain future.
We thank the people of Kauai for their support over the years, the County of Kauai, the State of Hawaii, Kauai’s state senator, Kauai’s state representatives and especially the members of our cooperative.
Jerry Ornellas, president, East Kauai Water Users Cooperative