The state’s land board fined Dole Food Company Hawaii $20,000 on Friday for failing to safely maintain the Wahiawa dam, which protects Oahu’s North Shore from flooding by Lake Wilson.

The more than century-old dam presents a “significant risk to the public today” and Dole has known of that risk for at least 12 years, Carty Chang, the state land agency’s chief engineer, told the Board of Land and Natural Resources. 

Lake Wilson, which holds up to 3 billion gallons, can fill up during a major storm in a matter of hours, yet the concrete spillway used to control those flows is “still undersized and still insufficient,” Chang said. 

Hydrologists with the private company Gannett Fleming further told the board that a study commissioned by Dole in 2017 had “significant errors” and significantly underestimated the maximum probable flood that could hit the lake. The state hired Gannett Fleming to consult on the matter.

City workers pump water from a near-capacity reservoir in Nuuanu in 2018. State officials, worried about flooding and failures of Hawaii’s earthen dams, fined Dole $20,000 Friday for deficiencies at the Wahiawa dam next to Lake Wilson. Marcel Honore/Civil Beat

Currently, the spillway at Lake Wilson can only handle about half of the estimated flooding in a worst-case scenario storm, Chang said.

However, Dole General Manager Dan Nellis challenged DLNR engineers’ assertions that the Wahiawa dam was not safe. 

The dam’s spillway has served its purpose ever since the structure was built in 1906, Nellis said. The company is waiting for the state to finish its update of decades-old standards on flooding before proceeding on any final design plans and construction, he added. That update could take up to two years, officials said at Friday’s board meeting.

Furthermore, Dole is trying to sell the dam either to the state’s Agribusiness Development Corp. or to a private investor who’s interested in using it to generate hydroelectric power, Nellis said.

The upgrades proposed by state dam-safety officials would cost around $15 million and put Dole out of business if the company had to cover that full cost, Nellis said. 

“We’re growing pineapples. We’re not growing money out here,” he told the board. Nellis added that the company did invest about $3 million in dam improvements since 2008.

Past Relics, Future Climate Threats

The Wahiawa dam was among three state-regulated dams on the BLNR agenda facing penalties Friday. Board members spent more than three hours discussing them in public, before going into closed session to decide what to do about the Wahiawa dam specifically. 

It was their first public discussion on dam deficiencies since heavy rains caused the empty Kaupakalua dam on Maui to swiftly fill and overflow, prompting evacuations.

Prior to that flooding, the owners of the Kaupakalua dam had been hit with a so-called “civil resource violation” — similar to the action taken Friday against Dole — for failing to respond to earlier deficiency notices.

When dams overtop, as Kaupakalua did, it can lead to their walls collapsing because the water erodes the soil downstream, Edwin Matsuda, DLNR’s chief engineer in charge of dam safety, told the board on Friday.

A bridge was destroyed by flood waters near Kaupakalua dam, which overtopped in March amid heavy rains. Jack Truesdale/Civil Beat

In Hawaii, “we’re starting to see more frequent severe rain events” – and more dam overtoppings, Matsuda added. State leaders, including BLNR chairwoman Suzanne Case, said that more proactive steps are needed to protect Hawaii’s aging structures against the impacts of climate change.

Some 120 of Hawaii’s 131 state-regulated dams, including the Waiawa dam, are labeled as having “high hazard potential,” meaning “failure or misoperation will probably cause loss of human life,” federal data updated in 2019 shows.

Case said she’s been digging into dam-safety issues with DLNR’s dam-safety division ever since the March rains that prompted the Kaupakalua evacuations. 

The earthen dams, relics of Hawaii’s agricultural past, weren’t designed to hold “the level of water that exists,” Case said Friday. Fixing them, however, has proven complicated and expensive, she added. The progress “has been going very slowly.” 

Dam safety engineers working under Chang proposed the $20,000 total fine against Dole because the company missed several deadlines on steps to improve the dam. The penalty aims to get Dole to respond to the matter more quickly going forward. 

The company has 60 days to pay it or it will get charged an additional $5,000 per day.

Nellis said the company has “every intention to try and keep moving this forward,” adding that the $20,000 could have gone to the dam improvements instead.

The board also fined the Edmund C. Olson Trust No. II $7,500 for similar deficiencies at Keaīwa Reservoir in Ka’u on Hawaii Island. State dam-safety officials had originally recommended that fine be $15,000, but a majority of board members thought that amount was too high given the specifics of that situation.

Case dissented, arguing that the board should uphold the $15,000 recommendation. If they reduce the fines too much “there is no incentive to make progress,” she said.

The board deferred action against the owner of the third dam — the Ukumehame reservoir on Maui — because that owner, West Maui Investors, LLC, requested a contested case hearing.

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