The ag project needs lots of water but the dam that could supply it will be torn down unless the farm can raise millions of dollars to save it.


Plans to create a community agriculture park in the heart of Kauai’s north shore town of Kilauea stalled for decades until the ratty mattresses, washing machines and wrecked cars were finally hauled off a 75-acre county plot in 2015, transforming an illegal dumping ground into an organic meat and vegetable farm. 

The nonprofit Aina Hookupu O Kilauea has since made strides to build a sustainable and equitable local food system where farmers are well-compensated to produce a bounty of food that their neighbors can afford. 

But the farm, which hopes to expand and will need millions of gallons of water a month for irrigation, is running into trouble as it tries to grow into the future.

The 100-year-old reservoir at the center of its future water supply is slated for removal, jeopardizing the expansion plans. The dam that creates the reservoir needs repair and it’s too costly for the owners to fix so it may have to come down.

Now, Aina Hookupu O Kilauea is mounting an ambitious fundraising effort to save it.

The farm currently depends on 1 million gallons a month of county drinking water for irrigation. But the fivefold expansion it’s working toward can’t be filled by the the county’s drinking water, Yoshi L’Hote, executive director of the Kilauea agricultural center, says.

The looming destruction of Kalihiwai Reservoir might also effect the county’s plans for an affordable housing project that, due to a water scarcity problem, doesn’t have access to adequate infrastructure.

A working farm on Kauai.
The nonprofit Aina Hookupu O Kilauea on Kauai wants to use stored water from the Kalihiwai Reservoir to irrigate crops on its 75-acre campus. The farming project currently depends on county drinking water to raise animals for meat and grow thousands of produce each week. (Brittany Lyte/Civil Beat/2022)

After a century of use, Kalihiwai Reservoir has produced downstream leaks flagged by state regulators as potential safety hazards. The spillway, where surplus water can freely flow if the reservoir overtops, is too small. And the embankment slopes are too steep, a potential stability problem for the walls that hold the water in.

Erosion and the passage of time contributed to these deficiencies, first identified by state dam safety inspectors after seven people died when the Ka Loko Reservoir gave way on Kauai’s North Shore in 2006, prompting a push to shore up dam safety issues. Another factor is that the earthen dam itself predates state safety regulations.

Since the Ka Loko tragedy, all but seven of Hawaii’s 127 state-regulated dams have been categorized by the state as high-hazard dams, meaning there’s a high potential for the loss of life as a result of a dam failure. 

Last year the state forced Kalihiwai Reservoir’s private owners — a neighborhood association and a pair of legacy agricultural plantations that no longer rely on the reservoir — to make a choice: Apply for a permit to upgrade the reservoir to meet modern safety standards or remove it. 

A decision in favor of removing it came down to cost and liability. Fixing the dam has an estimated price tag of $10 to $12 million. Getting rid of it would cost roughly $2 million to $3 million.

But last month Aina Hookupu launched a campaign to keep the dam from being destroyed. The Kilauea agricultural center is seeking to quickly fundraise enough money to reconstruct the earthen dam so that it can hold water in compliance with state dam safety rules.

In pressing an array of wealthy, community-minded Kauai landowners to contribute to the multimillion fundraiser, L’Hote said the agricultural center simply wants to prevent the loss of what he views as an invaluable public resource, not to mention a key to the farm’s future growth. The nonprofit is also considering crowdfunding to find money for the project.

No longer the lifeblood of Kilauea’s sugarcane cultivation, Kalihiwai Reservoir is a recreational resource for fishing and boating, as well as a wetland habitat to rare and endangered native birds. (Courtesy: DLNR)

“It’s been such a challenge even for me to justify to myself why we would spend $10 million to do this,” L’Hote said. “This is Kauai. It’s green, it rains all the time. The perception is that when it comes to water, we’re fine. But the reality is that we’re not fine. And that was demonstrated to us last year when we had a year-long drought and the reservoir nearly dried up.” 

“So instead of waiting for a future crisis where we have two or three years of drought in a row,” he said, “why don’t we galvanize ourselves to come up with a solution to save this as a water resource?”

Aina Hookupu O Kilauea Director Yoshi L’Hote stands before the nonprofit agriculture center’s forthcoming market where freshly harvested produce, meat, valued-added products and meals will soon be for sale. (Brittany Lyte/Civil Beat/2023)

In March the reservoir’s three ownership groups — the 181-member Kalihiwai Ridge Community Association, Common Ground and Wai Koa Plantation — signed a non-binding agreement expressing support for Aina Hookupu O Kilauea’s efforts to solicit private donations to save Kalihiwai Reservoir.

Also rallying behind the project is a newly formed working group of other private Kauai dam owners who face the same predicament: Foot the bill for major safety upgrades or shutter their water resource.

Meanwhile, Kalihiwai Reservoir’s ownership is moving ahead to attain state and federal permits required to tear the dam down, which could begin before the end of this year — unless the farm can raise enough capital in time to alter the course of the reservoir’s fate.

Elizabeth Letcher, a member of the KRCA dam committee who in February stepped down as the group’s president, said that while many in the dam’s ownership groups want the feature to remain, it’s simply too costly of an endeavor for a homeowner’s association and two relatively small agricultural parcels to shoulder. 

“I think Yoshi has a really interesting idea of how this sort of aging dam infrastructure can be repurposed to serve as a modern mechanism of climate resilience and how it could make sustainable agriculture more sustainable and free up county water for affordable housing and so I’m really hoping it will work out,” Letcher said. “So from 10,000 feet, we’re very open to trying to save the reservoir. But we’re not going to seek to extend deadlines on the removal solely to allow more time for fundraising and that’s because safety is the issue.”

The consequences of losing Kalihiwai Reservour would spill beyond the dam’s ownership.

The reservoir also provides fresh water storage that could be useful during times of drought or for fire suppression. It plays a role in mitigating flood risk. And it’s a federally recognized wetland habitat for at least three imperiled species of Hawaiian waterbirds: nene, the Hawaiian coot and the Hawaiian moorhen. 

There are also potential implications for housing development. The county has tentative approval from the county water department to build 40 homes in a planned 200- to 300-unit affordable housing community in Kilauea. The water department plans to drill a test well and build a new water storage facility to access more water to accommodate more units, but the success of this effort is uncertain. According to L’Hote, some wells in the area are dry, an issue that has curtailed development.

If the agricultural center can tap into the reservoir for irrigation water, L’Hote said, it would potentially free up another million gallons a month that could be used to support more units in the county’s planned affordable housing project.

Three months of abnormally dry weather at the start of 2022 left little water in Kalihiwai Reservoir. (Brittany Lyte/Civil Beat/2022)

Construction to decommission the reservoir is mandated to begin no later than May 1, a deadline set by the state. But the owners, who’ve been cooperating with state and federal regulators, have more paperwork to complete to receive the required removal permits.

The Board of Land and Natural Resources is expected at its April 28 meeting to take up the issue of whether to push back the deadline for construction to begin on the project to six months after the permit issue date. 

If this timeline sticks, KRCA President Tony Semedo estimates that the agricultural nonprofit has roughly six to nine months to raise about $10 million.

“On a personal level I am optimistic that it can be done,” Semedo said. “I just don’t know if there’s a collective will to do it in the timeframe that we have to do it in.”

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