Waiahole Water: Where Will It Go When Sugar Is Gone?

posted in: September 1994, Water | 0

The Hawaiian irrigation projects, though they are so far away and function so smoothly that few ever think of them, are the most remarkable and permanent change that man has wrought in the islands. If on some ultimate judgment day the sugar industry should ever have need for justification, it could rest its case upon its irrigation work and submit no further evidence.

– John W. Vandercook
King Cane (1939)

In sugar’s glory days, people of substance, people of influence, people of power never thought to challenge its dominance. What was good for sugar was good for the kingdom, republic, territory, and state (in that order).

An entire infrastructure was built to support sugar cultivation. Today, the railroads are long gone. The boat landings and flumes are verging on ancient history.

But the plantation’s irrigation systems have become assets that, if anything, are more valuable than ever. The battle over water in the Waiahole ditch system, which carries water from Windward O`ahu to the island’s central plain, is the first engagement in what will probably turn out to be a protracted war over rights to irrigation water throughout the state.

* * *

Strictly speaking, the Waiahole ditch system is more accurately thought of as a network of tunnels. From an elevation of almost 800 feet at the back of Kahana Valley, on the windward side, water trapped in the rocks between near-vertical basaltic dikes is transported by gravity through tunnels burrowing through the Ko`olau range. After the main tunnel emerges on the leeward side of the Ko`olau, huge pipes convey the water across gulches before it arrives finally at the fields to be irrigated.

From its source to its terminus, in the Ewa-Kunia area, the main system is about 27 miles long. Since it officially opened in May 1916, the average flow of water through the tunnel has been around 33 million gallons a day. In recent years, the flows have been lower than the long-term average (around 28 mgd), while in the earliest years of the tunnel, the flows were substantially above the long-term average.

On the windward side of the Ko`olaus, the tunnel consists of 27 connected segments and 37 stream intakes, where water that would naturally flow into windward streams is diverted into the tunnel system. (In recent years, most of the stream intakes have been closed off or have fallen into disuse.) The cross-Ko`olau tunnel, or main bore, is 14,567 feet — 2.76 miles — long.

The main bore and smaller tunnels were built from 1913 to 1916 by the Waiahole Water Co., Ltd., a subsidiary of O`ahu Sugar Co. (O`ahu Sugar, in turn, was owned by H. Hackfield & Co., which later was absorbed by Amfac, which, since 1988, has itself been a subsidiary of JMB Realty Corp., based in Chicago. Waiahole Water Co. changed its name to Waiahole Irrigation Co. in 1970, but it remains a wholly owned subsidiary of Amfac/JMB-Hawai`i, Inc.)

Originally, O`ahu Sugar had thought to divert stream flows through the mountain to the more arid central plain. When the actual digging of the tunnels began, the enormous volumes of water trapped in the porous rock itself caught engineers and workers off-guard.

But what first was regarded as a daunting challenge to the engineers turned eventually into a bonanza for O`ahu Sugar. On recognizing that most of the water delivered to the Central Plain came from inside the tunnels rather than from the diverted streams, Waiahole Water Co. dug a series of what it called “development” tunnels inside the Ko`olau mountains. The first two, each roughly half a mile long, were dug at the back of Waikane Valley between 1925 and 1929. Next was the Kahana Tunnel, 2,000 feet long, dug between 1929 and 1931. The 2,200-foot-long Uwau Tunnel was built from 1932 to 1935, and was extended 300 more feet in 1963.

User Rights

O`ahu Sugar may have built the system, but it does not own most of the land through which the tunnels pass. Instead, it dug the tunnels with the permission of the various landowners, which included the Territory of Hawai`i, Bishop Estate, L.L. McCandless, Mark G. Robinson, and others. For most of the century, landowners received payment for the water taken from their lands, based on figures provided by gaging stations along the way.

The payment was not uniform. For example, for the first thirty years of the system, the Territory was paid $15,000 a year for water taken from the Makawai and Waianu streams at the back of Waiahole Valley. For water taken from lands at the back of Kahana Valley, however, the private stockholders of the Kahana Hui, which owned the land until it was condemned by the state in 1966, were paid $40,000 a year. (The principal stockholder of the Kahana Hui, Mary E. Foster, was the sister of Mark P. Robinson, first vice president of O`ahu Sugar, at the time that agreement was made.) For the right to take water from Bishop Estate lands on the Ewa side of the Ko`olau crest, Waiahole Water Co. paid a base rate of $22,500 per year or $5.137 per million gallons, whichever was higher.


In July 1992, over the objections of O`ahu Sugar Co. among others, the state Commission on Water Resource Management voted to designate Windward O`ahu as a groundwater management area. As a result of that action, all users of groundwater were required within one year to apply to the commission for water use permits should they wish to continue their use of windward groundwater. In June 1993, therefore, the O`ahu Sugar Co. submitted five applications, covering use of up to 24.6 million gallons a day (mgd) of water from four development tunnels (Kahana, Waikane 1, Waikane 2, and Uwau) and the main transmission tunnel.

According to the applications, the proposed use of the water was “primarily for sugarcane cultivation on approximately 4,067 acres at O`ahu Sugar Company, Ltd.” Uses termed “secondary” included irrigation of the Royal O`ahu Resort Country Club, Mililani Memorial Park, Mililani Golf Course, Dole Food Co., and “Amfac/JMB Waikele” (this probably refers to residential development at Waikele).

But in August 1993, Amfac announced its plans to close O`ahu Sugar plantation, with the last harvest scheduled for 1995. This change in future use made it necessary for Amfac to revise its applications for windward ground water. In addition, because the nature of the use of water from certain leeward wells it was pumping also would change, Amfac prepared four additional applications for groundwater withdrawals from its wells at Waikele and Waipahu. Four revised applications for the development tunnels and four new applications for the wells were submitted June 14, 1994, with the intended uses identified as diversified agriculture and irrigation for planned and existing urban development in central and leeward O`ahu.

(No revised application was submitted for permission to take water developed in the main transmission tunnel, although this was said by Rae Loui, the Water Commission’s chief of staff, to be an oversight. On the leeward side of the crest, most of the land through which the tunnel passes belongs to Bishop Estate, which, Loui said, will be coming in with its own water use application.)

The Water Commission determined that the applications as submitted in June 1994 were incomplete. In late August, Amfac, through Hill and Knowlton Hawai`i, Inc., issued a news release that it would not pursue its application for the continued use of Waiahole water. “Considering the myriad complex social and policy issues and the competing demands for Waiahole water, it has become clear to us that the potential future users of Waiahole water, not Amfac, must take the lead on this,” Kanazawa was quoted as saying in the news release.

Meanwhile, in Waiahole…

In December 1993, three organizations based in Windward O`ahu jointly petitioned the Water Commission to restore stream flows in the area from Kualoa south to He`eia. Sponsoring the petition were the Kahalu`u Neighborhood Board No. 29; the Waiahole-Waikane Community Association; and the Hakipu`u Ohana. In April 1994, they expanded their request to include restoration of stream flows in Kahana Valley.

According to the petitioners, restored stream flow would, among other things, allow the number of taro growers in Waiahole Valley to increase; enhance nearshore fisheries in Kahe`ohe Bay; increase aquatic life in the streams; and reduce flooding, since the greater flows would clean out aquatic vegetation that now chokes low-flow streams.

Their petition would affect more than the water taken through the Waiahole ditch. However, probably the single most important event related to dramatic reductions in windward stream flows was the opening of the Waiahole irrigation system. As soon as the tunnels began providing water to the central plain, springs dried up and stream flows were drastically diminished. For that reason, the windward users’ instream flow restoration petition is regarded as competing against applications for continued withdrawal of Waiahole ditch water, even though, for regulatory purposes, most of the ditch water is regarded as ground water.

In July, the Water Commission staff informed the windward users that their petition had been found to be complete. The deadline for acting on the petition, set by law at 180 days from the date completed application is made, is December 19, 1994. The deadline can be extended at the request of the applicant, however.

While at the Capitol…

Throughout this time, the state Department of Agriculture also had its eyes on the ditch water. In December 1993, Agriculture Director Yukio Kitagawa announced that the state was looking into purchasing the entire ditch system for approximately $40 million so that water could continue to be delivered for agriculture in the central O`ahu plain.

(The Legislature did not authorize the Department of Agriculture to purchase the Waiahole system, but it did what might be seen as the next best thing. In enacting Senate Bill No. 3045, the Legislature established the Agribusiness Development Corporation, described by the Native Hawaiian Advisory Council as “a scheme to re-privatize plantation irrigation infrastructure and to place the system under the control of political powerbrokers.”)1

In the meantime, the Department of Agriculture applied for a “reservation” of all water flowing in the Waiahole ditch for unspecified future agricultural uses in leeward O`ahu and, provided the need for water on the windward side can be verified, for agricultural use there, too. As of late August, the DOA’s application had not been accepted as complete by the Water Commission.

A State Divided

The state, actually, signed as applicant or co-applicant on two of the three requests for the Waiahole water. In addition to being the sole applicant in the Department of Agriculture’s request for reservation of water, the state Department of Land and Natural Resources was listed as co-applicant on at least one of the permit applications of Amfac.

When Amfac submitted its first round of water use applications in June of 1993, the state of Hawai`i was identified as landowner on the application to take water from the Kahana Development Tunnel. In a covering letter to Keith Ahue, who is both chairman of the Board of Land and Natural Resources and chairman of the Water Commission, Anne Lo-Shimazu, land administration manager for Amfac, stated, “We would be most appreciative if the State of Hawai`i would sign” the Kahana Tunnel application. (Signatures of both the landowner and the applicant are required on Water Commission application forms.)

The question of the signature was made moot by the announced closure of O`ahu Sugar and the need for Amfac to submit revised applications. But in June 1994, when the revised applications were submitted, the signature of John P. Keppeler II appeared on the Kahana Tunnel application — not only in the blank for the landowner’s signature, but in the space allotted for the applicant’s signature as well.

In addition, the June 14, 1994, covering letter to Keith Ahue (in his position as chairman of the Water Commission) was signed by Bert Hatton, senior vice president of Amfac (representing Waiahole Irrigation Co.), and Keppeler, who is identified as representing the “state of Hawai`i.”

Conflicting Interests?

On June 22 and July 26, informational meetings were held in Waiahole and Waipahu, respectively. Both meetings followed the same format. As members of the Water Commission listened, their staff and the several applicants described the issues that the commission eventually would have to decide. Members of the public were then given time to comment.

At the Waiahole meeting, Keppeler described the state’s interest in the following manner: “I’m here to signify that this is a joint application, as the state has an interest in the natural resource known as the Waiahole Irrigation Company. The landowners in the area probably will be the successor to the system’s interest at the end of the day and we are interested in the full economic development on the island of O`ahu. The activities, the information, the consideration that will be done tonight will have far-reaching ramifications relative to the transformation of these kinds of properties in the future. Today it’s Waiahole and O`ahu Sugar; tomorrow it may be Hamakua and Hilo.”

Amy Luersen, chairman of the Kahalu`u Neighborhood Board, immediately raised what she described as a “procedural question.” “The joint application says that Mr. Keppeler signs for the state of Hawai`i,” she said. “And I guess we’re wondering, is this the policy, then, of the state, and under what authority or what agency is Mr. Keppeler signing for the state?”

Water Commission Chairman and Land Board Chairman Ahue answered that Keppeler signed the application “on behalf of the Department of Land and Natural Resources,” but when asked whether the decision to co-apply for the water had been made by the Board of Land and Natural Resources, Ahue acknowledged: “I don’t believe it was.”

In a telephone interview, Jack Keppeler told Environment Hawai`i that the decision to co-apply for the Waiahole ditch water was done with the knowledge of the Land Board, although no formal vote of the board had ever been taken. For more than a year, Keppeler said, the board had received “staff briefings” on efforts by DLNR staff to work out a “unified” application, involving the major users of the water, the owners of the land through which the tunnels passed, and the owner of the water system itself — or, in other words, parties that Keppeler said had “long established usages and interests in the conveyance of” the Waiahole water. The briefings, he said, typically occurred on evenings before regular board meetings. Keppeler described the briefings — and indeed the entire process of working out the “unified” application — as open, although he acknowledged that public notice of the briefings was not made.

In the interview, Keppeler insisted that his signature on the letter, as well as the state’s position as co-applicant, should be read as nothing more than the desire of the state to have the Water Commission make a decision on the several applications before it on the basis of the best information available. He denied that the state was siding with the Waiahole Irrigation Company. “The state has not cast its lot” with Amfac, he said, “nor is there any implication [in the application] that we have done so. We represent all of the people of Hawai`i… We chose to help Amfac in getting all the numbers needed” for its application, and signed “only to indicate the state’s interest in the application.”

The Water Commission had asked the attorney general for an opinion as to whether the DLNR’s signing as co-applicant with Amfac poses a conflict of interest for Keith Ahue, in his capacity as chairman of the Water Commission. As of late August, no opinion had been issued, although with Amfac announcing its intention to drop pursuit of its water use applications, the question of the state’s involvement in that application may have become moot.

Golf as Agriculture

In both public meetings, questions were raised concerning the commitment of Amfac to the long-term use of its former cane fields for diversified agriculture. Under questioning by Water Commissioner Robert Nakata at the first meeting, Hatton stated he could not say how long the central plain would remain in crops since “I’m not the only landowner in the area.”

Nakata: “So, say, for the lands you can speak for, how long a term is that?”

Hatton: “Mr. Commissioner, I can’t answer that question.”

Nakata then inquired about the uses to which the total allocation of water sought — 34 million gallons a day — would be put. If all 7,800 acres of O`ahu Sugar land were to stay in agriculture and were to require 3,000 gallons of water per day, Nakata pointed out, that would add up to just 24 million gallons a day. “What’s the use for the other 10?” Nakata asked.

Hatton: “Other non-potable uses, as mentioned in our application, including golf courses.”

Nakata: “Then, for Mr. [Yukio] Kitagawa, from the Department of Ag. Is golf course use considered agricultural use?”

Kitagawa: “In a traditional sense, agriculture is the science, art, business of cultivating the soil and production of a crop and livestock. In that sense, management of herbs I consider [golf] agriculture.”

After the audience groaned, Kitagawa added that the DOA’s application did not anticipate using the water for golf course irrigation: “What we’re looking is not for golf course but for crop production, other kinds of crops.”

Is There a Need?

As a commercial crop, sugar requires vast amounts of water — from 8,000 up to 10,000 gallons per acre per day. Assuming the replacement crops planted as part of a program to diversify the state’s agricultural industry are not as thirsty, it should be possible to irrigate land on the central O`ahu plain with a fraction of the volume of water now used by sugar.

This point has been made by proponents of stream restoration on the windward side of the island. The re-use of sewage effluent, surface water from Lake Wilson and pumped ground water from the basal lens are sufficient sources of irrigation water for all contemplated agricultural uses on the central plain, provided the sewage effluent was treated to at least secondary standards.

The chief advantage held by the ditch water over pumped ground water seems to be its cheap cost when compared with other sources. In the June 14 letter accompanying the Amfac/DLNR applications, Hatton and Keppeler do not address at all the possible re-use of effluent, but they do weigh the relative costs of pumped versus ditch water. To conserve former cane fields for “other agricultural pursuits” and to accommodate “the planned and orderly development of O`ahu’s secondary urban center on the Ewa Plain,” they say, “imported” water is necessary.

The letter-writers explain: “[N]either rainfall nor underlying ground water sources are sufficient to economically accommodate a viable agricultural industry and the planned and existing urban developments in Central and Leeward O`ahu. Using waters which would have been used to irrigate OSCo’s fields — in other words, the waters collected in the Ko`olau Mountains and conveyed to Central and Leeward O`ahu through the Waiahole Ditch, supplemented by waters pumped from wells located in Leeward O`ahu — has been identified as efficient, practical, and economical means of assuring that government land use policies can be implemented.”

A Wasted Resource

But speakers at the Waiahole meeting challenged the failure to consider sewage effluent re-use as a means of meeting Leeward O`ahu water needs. Deputy Health Director Bruce Anderson noted that flows from the Honouliuli sewage treatment plant now stand at 25 million gallons a day. Eventually, the flow is expected to be 52 million gallons a day, enough to meet “all the irrigation needs that we see in the Ewa Plain area,” he said.

Anderson addressed the relative cost of effluent re-use: “Let me say that the cost of developing effluent has often been cited as a major deterrent to the use of effluent. Although ditch water may be cheaper than sewage effluent in the short term, it will be far more expensive in the future to develop a sewage re-use system once you become dependent on the Waiahole ditch source. Even a temporary, short-term allocation of Waiahole ditch water for irrigation in the Ewa Plain will compromise development of a long-term water management strategy that includes the use of sewage effluent. It will be far more expensive to go back, put in the transmission lines necessary to transport sewage effluent once development has occurred in the Ewa Plain area than if it happens now. That long-term cost needs to be considered and should be considered.

“Let me also emphasize one point, if you look at the cost issue. And that is we’re going to be treating sewage at Honouliuli to the secondary level anyway. That cost that we’re talking about, whether it’s a buck fifty or two bucks per thousand gallons, is going to be incurred by the city. The additional cost to treat the water to the level it can be used for irrigation — I can’t tell you now, but, say, fifty cents [per thousand gallons] — is the real cost of providing effluent for irrigation, given the fact that you’re already going to be treating that effluent to secondary levels, even if you dump it into the ocean.

“So, if you look at the differential in cost, the Waiahole ditch water, which is relatively cheap, and the sewage effluent, what you really need to look at is the differential cost between what it would cost to treat that water for purposes of discharging it and what you need to do to reuse it… I submit it would probably be much cheaper to use that water, even considering that cost, than providing Waiahole ditch water.”

And More Waste…

How cheap is the Waiahole ditch water? Whatever the cost, it is not so great as to keep O`ahu Sugar from wasting several million gallons of it each day.

Complaints that O`ahu Sugar was wasting Waiahole ditch water were first made at a Water Commission on May 18, 1994. In June and July, Water Commission staff conducted investigations. Their findings were reported to the commission on August 17. According to the staff’s report, deliberate releases of water for no productive purpose were estimated at 5.4 mgd, while losses owing to leaks, seepage, and evaporation were estimated at 2.25 mgd, for a total of 7.65 mgd.

Estimates of releases made on the basis of observations, however, seem low when compared to estimates made on the basis of calculated water use. The Water Commission staff determined the amounts of water needed by O`ahu Sugar over the course of its phase-out of cane. In May 1994, 14.1 mgd would be needed for agriculture, dust control, and domestic purposes; by July, 9.18 mgd would be needed; by September, 5.84 mgd; and by November, 2.90 mgd. Assuming that the amount of flow in the ditch remains constant (at 28.13 mgd), the amount of water dumped or lost through other means would be, for those same months, 14.03 mgd (May), 18.94 mgd (July), 22.29 mgd (September), and 25.23 mgd (November).

The staff outlined two possible courses of action for the Water Commission: requiring O`ahu Sugar to demonstrate, within 30 days, how they were using the water for agricultural purposes; and requiring all water not used for agricultural purposes to be released into Waiahole Stream or other windward location, until such time that a decision is made on the Amfac applications. A third option — “no action” — was also identified.

In the end, the commission decided to accept written testimony on the matter until September 15; to ask Amfac “to work with staff to more definitively determine existing water uses and releases and identify other potential release points;” and to decide on the issue at the commission’s next O`ahu meeting (October 19, 1994).

1 For a discussion of the Agribusiness Development Corporation and further editorial comment, se the NHAC publication, Ke Ki`ai, Vol. 5, No.5 (June 1994), pages 1-3.

Volume 5, Number 3 September 1994

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