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Dry conditions leave isle farms parched

By Gary T. Kubota

POSTED:
LAST UPDATED: 04:05 p.m. HST, Jul 26, 2010


Michelle Galimba has been moving her livestock across her 10,000-acre Kuahiwi Ranch to higher elevation in Kau on the Big Island in hopes of finding better pastures during a drought that is causing her business and others hundreds of thousands of dollars in losses.

"It's pretty severe," she said. "I'd say half of the pastures on our ranch is unusable or going to be unusable very shortly.

"They're literally turning to dust. The soil's drying up and blowing away."

Galimba said South Point received 1.76 inches of rain from January through mid-July, compared with its usual 12 inches.

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The National Weather Service said 2010 is bringing the worst drought on record for ranchers and farmers in some parts of the state, including Kau.

"If they don't have more rainfall at a higher rate in the second half, it could be the driest year on record," said Kevin Kodama, senior hydrologist for the National Weather Service in Honolulu.

Kodama said El Nino conditions in the latter part of 2009 and earlier this year shifted weather conditions so that northern storms missed the Hawaiian Islands during the wet season.

He said the islands have entered the dry season between May and September where "you're not going to have much relief."

The problem appears to be getting worse in the long term.

State climatologist Pao-Shin Chu said rainfall in the state has been decreasing in the past half-century. He cited global warming.

"Over the last 50 to 60 years, we have seen an increase in temperature in Hawaii, coincident with a decrease of rainfall for the same time period," said Chu, a meteorology professor at the University of Hawaii.

All four Hawaii counties have been designated agricultural disaster areas due to financial losses from the drought, allowing qualified applicants to receive up to $500,000 in a federal emergency loan program.

The current crisis is drawing attention to the problem of Hawaii's deteriorating irrigation ditch and reservoir systems.

While there are some ditch systems serving parts of the Big Island and Maui, ranchers rely primarily on rainfall to water their pasturelands.

U.S. Rep. Mazie Hirono said that in the long term the islands need to develop more sources of agricultural water to provide producers with some margin of security.

Hirono said the House Appropriations Subcommittee has supported rehabilitation of the Lower Hamakua Ditch to farmers and ranchers on the Big Island, but the needs of agricultural producers far outstrip available federal resources.

Many of the ditch and reservoir systems in the state were once maintained by sugar cane companies but have experienced deterioration since major closures between 1970 and 2000.

Farmers said reservoir systems could hold the answer to their drought problems, but government entities need the will to commit money toward maintaining them.

Proper maintenance is important, in light of the Ka Loko Reservoir breach on Kauai in 2006, which killed seven people.

"You have to have commitment from government," said Grant Hamachi, president of the East County Farm Bureau on Oahu. "It's the only way to have a consistent supply in the future."

Farmers are at 30 percent mandatory conservation at the state agriculture reservoir in Waimanalo, and many are supplementing it with more expensive potable water from the city.

Hamachi said although the flow of water is better now, there have been "maintenance gaps" and leaks in the irrigation delivery system.

"It has to be continually monitored and maintained," he said. "Water is being wasted."

State agricultural spokeswoman Janelle Saneishi said the irrigation delivery system is 130 years old.

She said with retirements, departures and a hiring freeze, the reservoir program was left with no permanent workers by the end of 2009 and had difficulty finding temporary workers.

She said a second round of interviews is scheduled in August.

On Maui, Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. has not only been beset by a number of sugar cane fires aggravated by dry conditions, but lack of rainfall also has led to a reduction in new plantings on about one-third of its 35,000 acres.

Company official Rick Volner Jr. said because of a lack of rainfall, his business stopped new plantings in high-elevation areas in April.

Volner said rainfall was well below historical records of rainfall in May and lower last month than June 2008, which had been probably the driest year in its record.

He said the company was losing hundreds of thousands of dollars by using more of the power it produces at its plant to pump water for irrigation and reducing its sale of electricity to Maui Electric.

Kula farmer Benny Yamamoto said he hopes the rains come soon because the deer looking for foliage have been coming on his farm at night and eaten about 50 percent of his tomato crop.

"They eat the whole thing down to the stem," he said.

On the leeward slopes of Haleakala on Maui, Ulupalakua Ranch has recorded about 27 percent of the normal rainfall near its office.

Since Dec. 3 the ranch has received 5.29 inches of rain, compared with about 20 inches normally, said Sumner Erdman, ranch president.

Erdman said the period of January through June has been the worst period since the ranch started recording rainfall in 1925.

"We're reducing stock numbers," he said. "We're doing what we can."

Erdman said the normal breeding herd has been reduced to 2,000 head from 2,300.

The ground has been so dry for so long, Erdman said, the ranch would need substantial rain over a long period to restore the pasture lands.

"It's going to take a good supply of rain ... and that is going to take time."





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Drought now covers half of state




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