A water war has started on the westside, with Earthjustice taking legal action to limit century-old plantation diversions from the Waimea River. The complaint, filed on behalf of the Po‘ai Wai Ola/West Kaua‘i Watershed Alliance, claims the state Agribusiness Development Corp. and its tenants, the Kekaha Agricultural Assn., are diverting excessive amounts of water, some of which they end up dumping.
According to federal documents, Kekaha Sugar Co. built a 2,190-foot-long, 48-inch diameter steel siphon and some 28 miles of ditches, tunnels and flumes in 1907 to divert 50 million gallons per day from the Waimea River to its fields.
When Kekaha Sugar died in 2001, the Kokee/Kekaha ditch system was taken over by the new plantation — the chemical companies that grow seed crops. The chem companies and a few smaller farmers comprise the Kekaha Agricultural Assn., which maintains the system in partnership with the Navy. It's currently diverting about 40 million gallons a day.
As has been the case on other islands, the state did not conduct studies to determine how much water needed to remain in the river to serve environmental and public uses. Instead, the state set the instream flow standards to reflect the plantation's diversions. And now, the petitioners say, it's time to revisit that formula.
Though The Garden Island quotes ADC director James Nakatani making conciliatory noises —“They pointed out some good things — we shouldn’t be wasting water that we’re not using.” — a quick resolution isn't likely. Similar cases have dragged on for years, first before the state Commission on Water Resource Management, then over to the courts when the Commission failed to follow state law, then back to the commission under court order, then back to the courts when the Commission screwed up again.
Still, it's another strong message to the chemical seed companies, and the state, that “somebody's watching you.” And somebody should be watching the ADC. I mean, if it's a totally legit agricultural agency, why would its board members include Sandy Kato-Klutke, whose background is in tourism? To give you a sense of how Sandy is connected, and operates, she chaired the county planning commission that picked Ian Costa as planning director without placing his appointment on the agenda.
Earthjustice also released a final report from UH researchers that confirms sewage wastewater from Maui County's injection wells is entering the ocean at Lahaina, in violation of the federal Clean Water Act and state water quality laws. The county has been doing this for the past 30 years.
The study concluded that 64 percent of the injected wastewater reaches coastal waters via submarine springs, which discharge pollutants that “impact coastal water quality and result in elevated nutrient concentrations.” The study also found that the wastewater coming out of the seeps is warmer, more acidic, and less salty than surrounding ocean water.
The wastewater, which contains nutrient pollution and pharmaceuticals, was found to be endangering public safety, contributing to algal growth and harming the sensitive coral reef ecosystem. What's more, turtles feed on that invasive algae, and NOAA ecologist Kyle Van Houtan thinks there is a link between the algae's high nitrogen content and the often fatal tumors that develop in honu.
So what does this study mean for the other counties, including this one, that also inject treated wastewater into wells? As I previously reported:
According to Ed Tschupp, Chief of the Wastewater Division, three (3) of our County wastewater treatment plants use injection wells: 1) Eleele plant (4 wells) where injection well disposal is our only effluent disposal means; 2) Back-up disposal to irrigation re-use at Līhu‘e plant (7 wells); and 3) Waimea plant (2 wells).
Sounds like a good time to reassess that practice and look more closely at whether these injection wells are contributing to the marine ecosystem degradation that we're seeing on Kauai.