Kula ag park users await fix in ditch, urged to conserve water

Since a siphon break a week ago in East Maui Irrigation’s Hamakua ditch system, farmers and tenants at the Maui County Kula Agricultural Park have been asked to conserve water while they wait for repairs to be completed and as the county searches for other ways to bring water back to the park.

On Thursday, Department of Water Supply Director Dave Taylor said his staff was working on a temporary waterline connection from the department’s Lower Kula system to the agriculture park. He hoped the connection would be working today.

It would be just in time. Otherwise, the county said, the park’s large water reservoir would be empty by this afternoon.

The agricultural park supports around two dozen farmers with 80 full- and 20 part-time employees. The farmers lease land in the park from Maui County. It generates millions of dollars in produce, flowers and nursery products, county officials said.

“We are working with some private landowners and their agricultural water delivery systems to develop a temporary system,” Taylor said in an email.

The park’s water normally comes through East Maui Irrigation’s ditch system that feeds into the reservoirs in the Kula Agricultural Park.

On April 24, a break in an elevated portion of the Hamakua ditch system as it crosses Kailua Gulch was discovered.

The ruptured ditch sent a mud plume down the gulch and into the ocean near Baldwin Beach Park in Paia.

Repairs to the concrete siphon began immediately and have continued daily since the failure, said Garret Hew, president of East Maui Irrigation and Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co.’s water resource manager. EMI and HC&S are sister companies.

“Challenges in accessing the site because of the steepness of the terrain and the use of concrete in the repair process, make it difficult to accurately project a completion date. We will continue to work daily to complete the repairs and restore water deliveries,” Hew said in an email.

He added that besides the park, 3,100 acres of sugar cane have been without water from the East Maui ditch system.

Last week, HC&S apologized for the ditch rupture inconvenience but added that it does its best to maintain the 100-year-old, 72 miles of ditches, flumes and funnels of its East Maui water system.

Since the ditch failure, Kula Agricultural Park tenants have been “urged to go into extreme water conservation mode,” said Teena Rasmussen, director of the county’s Office of Economic Development. The office oversees the leases for the park’s 31 farm lots.

Tenants were initially notified April 24 about the problem via phone then via email.

One of the park’s tenants, Jimmy Jones, said that, for him, conserving water is “not too bad” because his plants, vegetables and herbs, are in pots, and he has an automatic sprinkler system and can easily control water usage. But he added that he worries about his fellow farmers who have crops in the ground and may have recently planted new crops that need a lot of water.

“It’s something for me it’s a little bit easier than the farmer who has crops in the field that has just been planted,” said Jones, the owner of Pukalani Plant Co.

Jones said he has had to slow production because there has not been enough water for his nursery’s needs, and two part-time workers have been asked to stay at home.

Other farmers at the park said they are “holding seed,” waiting until the water shortage threat passes before they plant again.

Rasmussen agreed with the farmers.

“The timing is very difficult for the farmers who were finally able to get into their fields to plant after several months of rain. Many of them have new plants in the ground that are particularly vulnerable if they don’t receive enough water,” she said via email.

Rasmussen added that East Maui Irrigation has been in regular contact with the water department to report progress on the repairs.

On Thursday, even as EMI said it was difficult to pinpoint when work would be completed, the county said it was believed those repairs would take an additional seven to 10 days.

In an email Tuesday urging tenants to conserve water, the county said there was only about four days of water left in the reservoirs for the ag park. The email said that, when the water supply is gone, “there are no alternatives in place.”

Prior to Taylor’s comments about trying to draw water from another system, Rasmussen said that the county could consider hauling water with trucks. If that were worked out, tenants would have to cut back 40 percent of their normal water usage, she said.

She also added that “no one is looking at a scenario where they would run out (of water) completely.”

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.