State auditor: Molokai water system mismanaged

By CHRIS HAMILTON, Staff Writer
Maui News

WAILUKU ? The state auditor issued a blistering report last week charging the state Department of Agriculture with mismanaging the Molokai Irrigation System while simultaneously allowing it to deteriorate over a period of decades.

The irrigation system is crucial to the island?s agriculture-based economy but draws only about 4 million gallons a day ? less than 10 percent of its projected capacity when it was first planned.

?We found that while the Department of Agriculture inherited a broken system, little has been done to learn about system problems or to create a plan to address them,? state Auditor Marion Higa wrote in her 57-page report. ?The department?s flawed management endangers agriculture in Molokai.?

However, state Agriculture Chairwoman Sandra Kunimoto called most of the report?s criticisms ?overreaching? in a telephone interview Friday.

She said she felt as though the report?s dramatic statements weren?t backed up by the actual details contained within it.

Construction on the irrigation system began in 1957 as a way to bring water from sources at Waikolu and Pelekunu valleys to farming communities in central and west Molokai. The system was operational by 1967, although only the Waikolu water sources were developed.

The complex system of dams, wells, tunnels, pipes and a flume and a 1.4 billion gallon reservoir was intended to bring water to Hawaiian homesteaders so they could grow pineapples, sweet potatoes and other crops. However, nonhomestead customers use 80 percent of the system?s available water, including Molokai Ranch, which owns thousands of acres on the island.

Main criticisms in the report, which was released Wednesday, include:

  • The department has ignored or not understood many of the studies done on the system. ?For example, problems reported in a 1987 study still exist today.?
  • The department recognizes the homesteaders? rights to two-thirds of the system?s water but does not take that fact into account in its long-term planning.
  • ?The department does not take seriously its responsibility of stewardship to the Hawaiian homesteaders.?
  • Large agriculture businesses have subsumed the needs of homesteaders.
  • A lack of adequate staffing, equipment and tools is contributing to the system?s decline.
  • Out of 17 air-flow valves, 16 were not working, which lessens the system?s water flows.
  • Miscommunication between the district offices and divisional management means the irrigation division was not aware of some work orders made.
  • There are no plans to repair the system and no long-term planning for the system with specific implementation goals.
  • The Molokai Irrigation System Water Users Advisory Board is underutilized.
  • About 90 percent of the accounts are at least 60 days past due.
  • The accounting department does not break out this system individually and instead combines it with four other water systems in the state and was unable to provide detailed information on its financial statements.
  • In fiscal year 2006-2007, the system brought in $498,000 and spent $428,000.

Higa said that the irrigation system is near the end of its intended life span, meaning major repairs and planning for replacement systems must be addressed and brought before the Legislature.

Kunimoto agreed that the system is in need of repair, but said that the report neglected to say that her office will receive $3.5 million over the next several years to fix many of the problems, including repairing the air valves as well as flow meters and electrical systems. The designs are done and the bids to contractors go out in March, she said.

Kunimoto said she did not know why the auditor failed to mention the release of funds or the recent progress made by the Molokai Irrigation System Water Users? Advisory Board. She said her department sent the auditor pages of corrections to a draft report that were not included in the final report released last week.

As for strategic planning, Kinomoto said the state and users? board have been involved in that process since last summer. She said the department is committed to repairing the system.

?In many ways, the report reflects our progress,? she said.

In the report, the auditor said that they could not find any minutes for advisory board and we?re told, ?Please don?t be too harsh. It?s Molokai.? The auditor said it is exactly that kind of attitude that fuels many of the issues.

She also stated that both sides should work to eliminate a long-standing atmosphere of mistrust between the state and Molokai farmers.

Kunimoto did say the irrigation division staff could do a better job of prioritizing their long-term goals and that the accounting system does need work.

She said at least one other significant project is moving forward, a possible hydroelectric plant within the system. An environmental assessment for it has been requested.

Conversely she took issue with the insinuation that homesteaders are not getting the water they want. She said they get preferential treatment but just aren?t asking for more water.

In September, based on a complaint by the Molokai Homestead Farmers? Alliance, the state Attorney General?s Office determined that Molokai Properties, which owns Molokai Ranch, was improperly using the irrigation system. The attorney general advised that the company produce an environmental impact statement and its use should be barred pending the EIS.

However, the Molokai Properties continues to use the water on a month-to-month basis, according to the auditor?s report.

Higa was appointed by the Legislature, which is controlled by the Democrats. Kunimoto was appointed by Republican Gov. Linda Lingle, who?s been in office since 2003.

?If you look at our record over the last five years, we have continually delivered water to farmers; and that?s the point,? Kunimoto said.

It was the Legislature, users? board and homestead farmers who requested the audit last year. The parties complained that their concerns were not being heard by the department and agriculture on Molokai was suffering as a result.

Higa on Friday said she applauded the Department of Agriculture for its proactive measures. But she then stated simply, ?We stand on our report.?

A copy of the report can be found online at www.state.hi.us/auditor/.

? Chris Hamilton can be reached at chamilton@mauinews.com.

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