South Kona Irrigation - Plan under way but funding absent


BY ERIN MILLER | WEST HAWAII TODAY

County, state and federal officials are bringing forward an as-yet unfunded $70 million to $99 million irrigation plan to help South Kona farmers water their crops.

The South Kona Watershed Irrigation System would provide "a stable, adequate, and affordable supply of supplemental irrigation water to farms in the Honomalino/Kapua area of the South Kona district ... to alleviate drought-related irrigation water shortages," the draft environmental impact statement said.

The document, released Friday, goes on to say the project would provide irrigation water for up to 2,000 acres of farmland. If the project were to be run by on-site electrical power, the project would cost about $70 million, and users would pay an estimated $15 per 1,000 gallons of water. If the project were to tie into the island's electrical grid, users would pay about $7.75 per 1,000 gallons. For comparison, agricultural users now pay $35 per 1,000 gallons.

The draft EIS was prepared by U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service. The state Department of Agriculture and the Hawaii County Department of Research and Development participated in the preparation.

There is no funding yet available for the plan. The Natural Resources Conservation Services supports the proposal, the document said, but federal funding sources won't fund a project with as low of a benefit-cost ratio as the irrigation project. The state's ag department said it cannot pay the high estimated costs for construction and maintenance of such a system. Federal, state and county officials did agree to resume a cooperative to operate and manage any irrigation system, if it is ever constructed.

Since 1982, drought conditions have persisted in South Kona, the document said, "adversely (impacting) crops and farmers' ability to maximize the agricultural potential of the land and have resulted in long-term regional economic distress."

The preferred alternative is the development of three wells in the upper elevations, about 2,600 to 2,800 feet, reservoirs, breaker tanks, water distribution lines and associated equipment. The irrigation system pipes would go as far as the edge of landowners' property, where the owner would then be responsible for installing distribution lines.

A fully built system would produce 3 million gallons per day of irrigation water, provide irrigation for up to 80 percent of the water demand for 2,000 acres, including 700 acres of existing macadamia nuts and 1,300 acres of coffee and other crops. Only 160 acres of the latter 1,300 acres is already in production, the document said. Wells could be located on private or state-owned lands.

Officials said they did not expect any significant environmental impacts from the proposed irrigation system.

Comments on the document must be received by Feb. 6. Comments may be mailed to Sharon Sawdy, P.E., Civil Engineer — Watershed Planning and Operations, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, 300 Ala Moana Blvd., Room 4-118, Honolulu, HI 96850.

emiller@westhawaiitoday.com