In 2007, after the Ka Loko Dam break, Hawaii passed a Dam and Reservoir Safety Act (codified in HRS chapter 179D) to ensure dams and reservoirs are properly maintained and that public safety is protected. In 2009, the Legislature cut off critical funding for the program.
In 2010, the state Board of Land and Natural Resources adopted new administrative rules and proposed that more than 50 percent of the program costs come from fees on reservoir and dam owners.
Many of the reservoirs — built in an era of plantation agriculture — no longer generate enough revenue to be economically sustainable. But they are needed in ways few people have imagined. The issue of how to pay for the upgrading and maintenance of this critical infrastructure is now gaining more attention as the state’s budget comes into focus.
Dams and reservoirs are the key to not just a future of sustainable agricultural system in Hawaii, but to the entire water and environmental health of the state. In addition to storing and delivering reliable water for agriculture in dry times, ensuring flood control during large storms, helping with erosion control and reducting sediment loading on our nearshore ocean reefs, reservoirs ensure a supply of potable drinking water.
Reservoirs also help recharge our groundwater aquifers by capturing storm water that otherwise would rush to the ocean.
There is growing evidence that there will be a pattern of fewer but larger storms separated by longer intervals of drought. If the large rainfall flows are not captured, groundwater recharge may be significantly reduced. Groundwater is our primary source of drinking water and demand is relentlessly rising. We already face declining groundwater recharge every time we place hard impermeable surfaces (e.g. concrete) over previously open ground.
Hawaii’s farmers and ranchers are experienced water managers. We must contend with periodic and often severe dry periods. Witness the last five years.
The new Dam and Reservoir Safety rules will levy an additional burden on reservoir owners and Hawaii farmers. Fuel, labor, equipment, transportation and other expenses are already higher in Hawaii than on the mainland, placing locally grown products at a competitive disadvantage. Inevitably, increased costs will be passed on to consumers and are counterproductive to efforts to grow more food in Hawaii. Some landowners will simply decommission their dams, abandon their reservoir systems and decide what to do with their now fallow lands when agriculture is no longer viable.
We have a choice. We can support our agricultural industries. Buying local and supporting local farmers is the right choice, but it comes at a price. We can make dams and reservoirs safe in partnership with the operators, food producers and government. In doing so, we reinforce the notion of food security and sustainability and reduce the number of invasive plants and pests that arrive on imported foodstuffs.
We can perpetuate a lifestyle that not only produces tangible benefits and local jobs, but also features pastoral landscapes.
An investment in the Dam and Reservoir Safety program is a modest and important way to let our elected leaders know that this is a priority to a community isolated in the middle of the Pacific. Capturing and storing surface water is critical not just for the future of agriculture, but also the environmental health of our land.
Call your legislators. Tell them that water storage is critical for agriculture, for streams, for our reefs and for our water supply.
Tell them agriculture is important to you, your community and your lifestyle. Ask them to restore $1 million to the budget representing the state’s allocation toward inspection and oversight of this vital infrastructure.
One day, if the ships stop coming, we’ll be glad we did.