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DLNR proposes to drain Wailua Reservoir

WAILUA — The state Department of Land and Natural Resources is proposing to drain the Wailua Reservoir and breach the dam after finding that neglected maintenance could threaten the lives of nearby residents if no action is taken.

DLNR officials released this month an environmental impact statement preparation notice showing it intends to relinquish control over the reservoir and connected irrigation system, citing poor facility conditions.

“With the conversion of farmland to residential development in the surrounding areas, some North Wailua Ditch laterals have been removed or covered in place,” the notice reads. “Additionally, the remaining ditches, laterals and tunnels have become overgrown and dilapidated throughout much of the system due to a lack of routine maintenance and a lack of flow through the system. The existing system is no longer viable without a substantial amount of maintenance and rehabilitation.”

The DLNR has classified the reservoir as both “high hazard” and in “unsatisfactory” condition, indicating it both requires immediate remedial action and that failure of the dam could result in the loss of human life.

The department said it does not have the necessary resources to safely continue operating the dam, reservoir and irrigation system, and instead intends to develop an environmental impact statement to determine the best of three potential solutions.

One proposal is to fully breach the dam, drain the reservoir pool, seal the existing diversion and abandon it in place. Doing so would restore natural flow within the North Fork of the Wailua River.

Alternatively, the department has proposed a partial breach of the dam, leaving only a small reservoir pool, while sealing the existing diversion. However, the department said it will have to conduct engineering evaluations to determine whether this proposal would be feasible.

The department also proposed identifying an external entity to either operate or manage the irrigation system, although it’s had little success since it began pursuing this option in 2019.

If this attempt was successful, though, it wouldn’t be the first time the DLNR found a new manager to keep the system alive.

In 2001, the now-dissolved East Kaua‘i Water Users Cooperative formed to manage the system after the DLNR first indicated its intent to shut the reservoir down. Since the cooperative’s inception, it had sought to transfer management of the system to the state Department of Agriculture, if the state Legislature provided necessary funding.

The cooperative continued providing irrigation for neighboring farmers and ranchers until 2019, when changes in the permitting process meant reapplying would no longer be financially feasible, according to former cooperative president Jerry Ornellas. On Dec. 31, 2019, the DLNR reclaimed control of the system.

Ornellas has long opposed abandoning the system, arguing that doing so would damage Kaua‘i’s agricultural capabilities.

“At a time when the state is looking to increase food self-sufficiency, it seems very short-sighted to abandon this important and irreplaceable resource,” he said in 2019, when the cooperative first announced it would no longer manage the reservoir.

“It is with great sadness that we see the system we’ve worked two decades to maintain as our service to the community face such an uncertain future.”

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Jackson Healy, reporter, can be reached at 808-647-4966 or jhealy@thegardenisland.com.
Source: The Garden Island

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