LIHU‘E — As Hawai‘i state government pushes to localize food production and create a more sustainable system to feed families, Kaua‘i farmers and ranchers are looking at a pipeline that’s drying up.
Many of the people central to a local food production system are losing access to water, particularly on Kaua‘i’s Eastside, where a cooperative-managed, state-owned irrigation system was shut off in January.
Without water, raising crops and livestock is impossible. Some growers are looking at the expensive proposition of digging wells. Others are considering piping in water for their fields. Some may have to close down.
There is opportunity for partnering with growers on Kaua‘i’s Westside, with several thousand acres of state Agribusiness Development Corporation land that could be farmed in partnership with the Kekaha Agriculture Association.
They’re the second of the two large water-management cooperatives that have been overseeing Kaua‘i’s state-owned irrigation systems and providing water for larger production than the small farmers on the Eastside.
There are hitches in that plan, though. Travel time and profit-loss scenarios paint a unpromising picture, and the irrigation system the ag association manages on the Westside has barely enough water to satisfy the users they already have.
Water managers say without irrigation, Kaua‘i’s local food production will dwindle.
Eastside drying out
The East Kaua‘i Irrigation System was formerly operated by Lihu‘e Plantation, and in 2001 the East Kaua‘i Water Users Cooperative took over operations under a revocable permit issued by the state Department of Land and Natural Resources.
A co-op of about 30 farmers and ranchers, the group managed the irrigation system for 18 years until the state changed the permitting system, requiring more in-depth environmental studies for water diversions from the rivers. The prospect of meeting new requirements became too expensive.
So, they disbanded the co-op and gave up operation of the system, and it reverted back to DLNR, which is currently looking for another system manager. In a Jan. 24 news release, the entity said if they can’t find one, “DLNR will pursue shutting down the system, including breaching the (Wailua) reservoir.”
While the system is in limbo, DLNR says they’re not delivering water to users because the entity does not have the expertise or resources to do so.
Former president of the East Kaua‘i Water Users Cooperative Jerry Ornellas said the group never planned on operating the system in perpetuity, but they were hoping the state would have found a solution to water delivery before they gave up operation.
“We assumed by this time the state would have found a long-term solution,” Ornellas said. “We tried twice to get it transferred from the Department of Land and Natural Resources to the Department of Agriculture as the owners and operators.”
Ornellas acknowledges some people support the return of water to the rivers and natural streams, returning flows to pre-diversion levels, but says lack of water means lack of food production on the Eastside.
“I’m assuming some farmers are going to have to drill wells or quit farming, which leaves a whole slew of issues,” Ornellas said.
Growers look west
The Kekaha Agriculture Association manages a Westside irrigation system under an executive order that covers roughly 12,000 tillable acres of mostly ADC land, only 3,000 of which are in current production. It’s fed by two diversions — the Koke‘e Ditch System and Kekaha Ditch System.
A 2017 settlement of a lawsuit between community groups Po‘ai Wai Ola/West Kaua‘i Watershed Alliance and Kekaha Ag Association/ADC led to environmental review of that system and a big reduction in volume of water diverted from the natural streams.
Before the settlement, the Kekaha Ditch diverted an average of 32 million gallons a day for irrigation. Now that ditch diverts six to 10 mgd, according to Mike Faye, president of the Kekaha Ag Association.
The Koke‘e Ditch System diverted about 20 mgd before the 2017 settlement, and now takes about one million gallons per day.
“We still have enough water,” Faye said.
A switch in crops helped level the playing field. In the plantation days the Westside was growing mainly sugar cane, “a very thirsty crop,” according to Faye. Now production has switched mainly to corn, which requires less water, and a handful of small farms.
Faye says there’s opportunity on the Westside for farmers who are looking to relocate their crops, and Kekaha Ag Association is working with members like Corteva Agriscience on solutions to the water problem.
“We’re working on a strategic plan to get more small farmers here,” Faye said. “If they don’t have water on that side of the island, we could very well start moving some of them to our side.”
It’s not an easy proposition. ADC leaseholder requirements don’t work in favor of the small farmer, and securing even a sublease through an entity like Corteva is expensive and complicated.
Corteva Communications Manager Laurie Yoshida says the company has explored that option through an incubator program they’re working to get off the ground, one that would provide space for small farmers to grow their crops.
The company has some land they’re not using and aren’t geared toward farming multiple crops. Rather than using the land themselves, the idea is to sublease space to other local farmers.
“To do it requires a sublease, and with ADC they have to have the experience and the water and soil-conservation plan and all that. It’s not a cheap thing to do,” Yoshida said. “We’re trying to figure out a way, but it’s difficult.”
Kekaha Ag Association is considering plans of its own, but has run into problems with the way ADC runs its leasing as well.
“ADC wants you to take at least a field size, and the smallest field size we have out there is about 40 acres,” Faye said, pointing out most farmers are more likely to be aiming for 10 acres.
Aside from the problems of paperwork and mounting costs for leasing land, Ornellas questions how many more farmers and ranchers the Westside could really support.
“You have just enough water for your users now,” he said.
State’s plan for local food production
Hawai‘i currently imports about 90% of its food, and according to studies only has an 11-day food supply on hand should sustenance shipments stop coming from across the seas.
In 2014, Gov. David Ige announced a plan to double local food production by this year, a goal that’s also included in the Sustainable Hawaii Initiative.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s census, the number of farms on Kaua‘i did increase from 2012 to 2017, when the USDA published the latest data. According to their statistics, Kaua‘i had 591 farmers in 2012 and 733 in 2017.
Irrigated land acreage stayed about the same, just over 22,000 acres.
With that irrigated land now dwindling on the Eastside, farmers and ranchers are looking at other ways to keep local food production alive and their livelihoods afloat in a land without water.
Jessica Else, editor-in-chief, can be reached at 245-0457 or firstname.lastname@example.org.