The state is almost ready to release funds to acquire the rundown Wahiawa dam, spillway and irrigation system from Dole Food Company — all that is needed now is Gov. David Ige’s signature.

But the acquisition comes with a $26 million catch: The state will need to pay to restore the 116-year-old system and bring it up to its own safety standards, a cost Dole — which has received several fines for its dam alreadyhas said would put it out of business.

The system is set to eventually fall into the hands of the Agribusiness Development Corp., a government agency that also received millions of dollars for improving Waiahole Water System and Kekaha Ditch on Kauai.

And while investing in water infrastructure is seen as a crucial step toward ensuring Hawaii can produce more food, the Department of Agriculture has been losing out on improving or maintaining what it sees as the state’s most important infrastructure.

DOA’s requested $13.5 million in water-related infrastructure projects was almost entirely ignored last legislative session, continuing a years-long trend of lawmakers failing to fund what the state’s own infrastructure experts see as agriculture’s top priorities.

Nevertheless, DOA will likely be tasked with doing the work to rehabilitate the dam and expand the spillway, even though it has no land in the area. The Department of Land and Natural Resources will likely take over Lake Wilson and land to be acquired in the process; ADC will manage the system once DOA’s work is completed.

Water flows near a reservoir located along Kaukonahua Road near Wailua, Oahu.
Water flows near a reservoir along Kaukonahua Road near Waialua. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

The plan, led by Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz, received a lukewarm response from agencies when it was initially introduced as a bill earlier this year due to liability issues, but it has come to be seen as the best option for the state to ensure public safety surrounding the infrastructure. The funds ended up in the operating budget, but Dela Cruz says more solid plans will come if the governor signs off.

‘Definitely Falling Apart’ 

Little has been said about the 30 miles of irrigation infrastructure that Lake Wilson feeds, which is functional but just provides R2 water – which can only be used on limited crops or for livestock – and is also in need of maintenance.

The 2019 DOA Agricultural Water Use and Development Plan recommended individual studies be done for all the state’s water distribution systems, given many are more than a century old.

When asked if there had been any assessment of the Dole irrigation system and how much it would cost to maintain or restore, ADC Executive Director Jimmy Nakatani said the corporation was focused on making the dam safe with the $26 million reserved by the state and had not dealt with the irrigation system yet.

Short tour with Senators Kidani and Dela Cruz, Congressman Kahele at Lake Wilson.
Sens. Michelle Kidani and Donovan Dela Cruz toured Lake Wilson with Congressman Kai Kahele last year. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Dole confirmed there are at least two reservoirs in the system that need upgrading or review and sections of ditches and pipes that need to be repaired in Waialua.

Nonetheless, the irrigation system is crucial to the area’s agriculture because if farmers do not have access to it, they either have to dig wells and draw from the aquifer — a limited resource — or truck water in, according to extension agent Jensen Uyeda, who works for the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources at the University of Hawaii Manoa.

Uyeda, who helps farmers throughout Central Oahu, says about half the operations in the area use the irrigation system.

“It’s definitely falling apart here and there, which probably needs addressing sooner than later,” Uyeda said.

A Department of Agriculture map of the Oahu ditch system from 2019. Courtesy: Hawaii Department of Agriculture

Another reason for acquiring the infrastructure was fear that a private purchaser — Dole has said private investors had expressed interest — could purchase the system and increase farmers’ water costs.

Farmers “should want the state to buy it, because the state can put in the money to fix it,” Dela Cruz said. “The private guys, it’s the least of their worries.”

Notwithstanding the importance of ensuring the dam’s safety, Rep. Amy Perruso, who represents Wahiawa in the state House, is skeptical about the purchase’s agricultural outcome given ADC’s involvement.

The ADC has been continually criticized for a lack of transparency, coming to a head last year when a critical audit found it had failed in its mission to diversify agriculture since the end of the plantation era.

Dole Food Co Pineapple fields along Kamehameha Hwy near Wahiawa.
The Wahiawa area has been home to pineapple plantations for many years, irrigated with water from Lake Wilson. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

Perruso, a vocal critic of ADC, believes there has not been enough conversation about what Central Oahu’s agricultural future looks like, especially considering there is a newfound focus on diverse crops instead of the plantation model.

There is another $1.6 million allocated to Wahiawa Wastewater Treatment Plant — a plan started in 2016 and the crux of a bill that failed in 2019 — to convert water into R1 grade water, which can be used on more diverse crops.

But that does not account for what Wahiawa’s agricultural future actually looks like, Perruso says.

“There has been zero conversation about the types of crops that will grow on those acres,” Perruso said. “Previously this was all pineapple and it’s not water intensive.”

The DOA agricultural water use plan from 2019 echoes her sentiment — diversified crops mature in a matter of months, while sugarcane and pineapple take up to two years.

That means if there is to be more diversification, there could be a lot more pressure on water resources in the area.

“The whole infrastructure is really inadequate for any other crops,” Perruso said. And bringing it up to standard to create more security of food supplies, both in the face of climate issues and costs remains to be seen. “I think we should be asking really hard questions of the ADC.”

An approved move from DOA’s jurisdiction to the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism has only stoked fears that it would be less focused on agriculture and will be harder to keep accountable, Perruso says.

Restoring For The Future

DOA has received just under $29.5 million of $124.8 million in capital improvement requests for projects that include water infrastructure over the past five years; each request came from the Agricultural Resource Management Division, the department’s infrastructure experts.

Rep Amy Perusso during mail in ballot hearing.
Rep. Amy Perruso says hard questions should be asked of the Agribusiness Development Corporation. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

The governor, who makes CIP funding requests to the Legislature for departments, approved and asked for $58.75 million over that period before the Legislature cut that by almost half.

Projects such as a $10 million request for the Royal Kunia Agricultural Park – which requires irrigation – have been in the pipeline for more than five years and are yet to receive state funding. Other CIP requests this year included general infrastructure improvements with a $1 million request, and miscellaneous improvements to the Kahuku Agricultural Park, with a $1.25 million price tag.

Even with a $1 billion budget surplus, the Legislature only gave DOA money for the decommissioning of Hawi reservoir on the Big Island, despite getting almost full support from the governor for all its water-related projects.

According to DOA’s five-year capital investment plan, for water use and development, it needed just short of $167.5 million.

Meanwhile, state lawmakers continue to pledge action to increase local food production while giving its agricultural agency 0.3% of Hawaii’s budget.

For Perruso, the governor’s apparent interest in spending more than the lawmakers shows the blame is not necessarily on him, especially considering Ige is known for being fiscally conservative.

“What that tells you is the governor and his investigators are trying to do the necessary work to make agriculture a viable part of our economic diversification,” she said. “And the House and the Senate are failing to support that effort.”

ADC has support from key legislators which not only helps it get money from the Legislature but also helped it escape a critical audit relatively unscathed.

Morris Atta, deputy to DOA Chair Phyllis Shimabukuro-Geiser, has a tempered response to the chronic underfunding, saying the department’s five engineers and 16 water workers are resourceful under the circumstances.

“They’re managing to keep all of our systems at great operational levels with pretty much meager funding,” Atta said. “Basically, we’ll take what we can. But obviously we’re disappointed with the fact that we’re not getting the full funding we were hoping for.”

Hawaii Grown” is funded in part by grants from the Ulupono Fund at the Hawaii Community Foundation and the Frost Family Foundation.

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