Into the great wide open Hamakua residents want to keep irrigation ditch from being buried


HILO — Some members of the County Council want the state Department of Agriculture to halt its plans to convert sections of the century-old Lower Hamakua Ditch to buried pipes.

A group calling itself Third Thursday Thrive, which includes Hamakua community members and County Council candidates Margaret Wille and Chelsea Yagong, made a presentation before a council committee last Tuesday on the importance of preserving the ditch as an open waterway.

Built in the first decade of the 20th century, the 26-mile ditch diverts water from the stream that feeds into Waipio Valley and provides nearly all the irrigation water being used between Kukuihaele and Paauilo. The state Department of Agriculture took over responsibility for the maintenance of the ditch after Hamakua Sugar Co.’s bankruptcy in 1993.

In 1999, the state decided on a restoration plan to retain the open water ditch system and rejected an option to cover a major section of the ditch because of its high estimated installation cost, about $18 million. “Another disadvantage, to some, will be the loss of the historic and symbolic character provided by the open ditch,” according to an environmental impact statement at the time.

Following the publication of that document, a memorandum of agreement in 2001 declared the ditch a protected watershed, and the National Resource Conservation Service and local landowners have spent millions of dollars implementing the repair and restoration plan.

In 2006, the state Department of Agriculture applied for for a $3.9 million predisaster mitigation grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and had developed a plan to pipe and bury the watershed to resolve flooding issues.

The state has been in right-of-way acquisition talks with landowners to enclose sections of the ditch with buried high-density polyethylene pipe, said Glenn Okamoto, an engineer with the state Department of Agriculture.

Wille is an attorney for two of the landowners who have not signed an agreement with the state for an easement to sections of the pipe.

At Tuesday’s meeting, members of the group testified before the council on the historic and environmental significance of the Lower Hamakua Ditch as an open waterway.

While they aren’t opposed to the state using the water in the ditch, the group opposes enclosing it, especially without further community input.

Wille’s draft resolution, which may go before the council in the near future, asks the state to “enable a public process on this matter before irrevocable decisions are made.” Among the options to involve the public would be updating the 1999 EIS and holding public hearings.

Okamoto said that as far as he knows, no public meetings have been held on the project.

The resolution will also ask that a decision on the ditch be delayed until the Hamakua Community Development Plan is completed.

Mitch Evans, a member of Third Thursday Thrive, said he supports “a slowdown (of the state’s effort) and a deliberate and public process for determining the future of the ditch.”

“Let’s not do something in haste that will destroy the region’s heritage,” Wille added.

Council members did not vote on any resolution, but some of them pledged support to the group.

“I will absolutely support a resolution telling the state to cease and desist,” Councilwoman Brenda Ford said.

“I grew up in Hamakua, and this ditch has been the absolute lifeline of the community,” said Councilwoman Dominic Yagong. “A resolution will be brought forward.”