Story updated 3:35 p.m., 2/3/20 

KAPAA, Kauai — The Department of Land and Natural Resources has threatened an irrigation water users cooperative on Kauai’s east side with shutdown, a step that would leave 6,500 acres and about 30 farms with no ready access to water for crops.

But it remains unclear if the threatened DLNR closure order reflects the agency’s actual intent or whether the East Kauai Water Users Cooperative can facilitate action in the Legislature or at DLNR that could halt the march toward closure. DLNR did not set any specific date for when it might act.

A key element of this political game of chicken is Senate Bill 2099, introduced by Senate President Ron Kouchi, which came up for a hearing on Monday in the Senate Agriculture and Environment Committee, chaired by Sen. Mike Gabbard. The committee passed it unanimously, sending it on to the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

A tourist walks past the Wailua Reservoir, part of the irrigation system farmers are fighting to keep running. Allan Parachini/Civil Beat/2020

The bill recognizes that the water users co-op is not in a financial position to take over all operation of the irrigation system and to pursue a stream diversion permit that is now required in place of one-year revocable permits the organization has received since it took over operation of the system in 2001. The bill would eventually transfer operation of the East Kauai system to the Hawaii Department of Agriculture.

An earlier version of the bill, Senate Bill 223, was introduced last year and passed in both the House and Senate only to stall at the end of the session in April after the two chambers were unable to resolve differences on the two versions.

The new bill would extend the time the cooperative has to obtain the full permit until July 1, 2022, and create five new state-funded positions to operate the system.

The water network has actually already been shut down — albeit for just 28 days in January — after the cooperative notified DLNR it was not in a position to pursue a full, permanent permit, which would require an extremely costly environmental review.

Volunteer irrigation system operator Brad Seymour of Seymour Resources stands at the gate that governs water diverted into the East Kauai Water Users Cooperative system. Allan Parachini/Civil Beat/2020

At that point, the co-op secured a temporary agreement with Brad Seymour, who runs an irrigation consulting company called Seymour Resources.

Seymour has full right of entry to the entire system, but only as an unpaid volunteer. He said maintenance demands are such that it requires three of his employees to keep the system from deteriorating and the water flowing.

The plight of the system has received scant public attention except for a letter to the editor by Jerry Ornellas, president of the co-op, that appeared in November in Kauai’s daily newspaper, weeks before DLNR’s Jan. 24 closure announcement.

Ornellas said in an interview Friday he was puzzled by the lack of awareness of a system on which dozens of farms depend. Ornellas was sharply critical of how DLNR has handled the situation.

“These reservoirs are active and even if you shut them down, they will impound water in a storm,” he said.

He noted that the entire East Kauai system is on state-owned land. But, he said, “they could string us along forever. It’s like a parent telling a child to just grow up already and take care of your business. It belongs to the state. If the state is serious about agriculture, the Legislature should take care of this.”

The Upper Kapahi Reservoir is part of the East Kauai Water Users Cooperative system. Allan Parachini/Civil Beat/2020

Were the irrigation network to close down, the farms would have to drill their own wells or connect to the Kauai County water system. Either step would be financially beyond the reach of most of the farmers, Ornellas said.

“The fact of the matter is that we don’t have enough of a customer base,” Ornellas said. “The system could not be self-sustaining at this time.”

What is more, DLNR said the failure of the irrigation co-op to secure its permanent permit led the agency to issue a closure order that took effect Dec. 31 and was averted only by Seymour’s emergence as volunteer operator. The DLNR statement suggested the volunteer operation system is only temporary.

“DLNR’s current primary objective is to work collaboratively with Kauai legislators and find an appropriate public or private entity to assume management and operation of the system,” the agency said.

But DLNR’s statement also warned that without a legislative or financial solution, the system will be given its final closure order. In a brief emailed comment last week, the agency said it didn’t have “anything further to add at this time.”

This gate controls the main diversion into the East Kauai Water Users Cooperative irrigation system. Allan Parachini/Civil Beat/2020

The East Kauai system, which includes streams, tunnels, pipelines and diversion ditches, was originally constructed in 1920 to provide water to sugar cane fields operated by the Lihue Plantation Co.

When the company finally went out of business in 2000, the cooperative was formed and exists as a tax-exempt nonprofit “mutual ditch and irrigation company” accountable to the Internal Revenue Service.

At the moment, the system is served primarily by the Wailua and Upper Kapahi reservoirs. It has 10 miles of distribution ditches, Seymour said.

DLNR said it would also eventually breach the Wailua Reservoir, rendering it completely unserviceable. Seymour said that step would be necessitated by public safety requirements since if the abandoned reservoir were to fail in a heavy storm situation, it could cause a downstream catastrophe on the order of what happened at the Kaloko dam near Kilauea, which collapsed in March 2006, sending a torrent downstream that killed seven people.

A volunteer operator says if the system is shut down, ditches would dry out and start to collapse. Allan Parachini/Civil Beat/2020

Seymour said that in the event of closure, ditches would dry out and start to collapse, vegetation would start to take over, blocking the water flow and valves and other control apparatus would quickly deteriorate.

“It was heartbreaking for me” to see the system actually shut down temporarily, Seymour said.

“So many ranchers and farmers depend on this water,” he said, and the Wailua reservoir is a fishing site on which many community members rely. Because it has enormous potential for expansion in the number of farm clients it can serve, Seymour said, “this system provides an agriculture opportunity for the future” for a large swath of the east side of Kauai.

The area, Seymour said, has the potential to include more than 100 farms “and that is where we ought to be going.”

He said the staffing called for in the legislation to be heard Monday could cost as much as $500,000 a year, but would more likely be in the range of $250,000.

He said even the minimal level of maintenance currently provided by volunteers would cost $175,000 and his company is not in a position to continue the work on more than a temporary basis.

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