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Legislature considers measure to help landowners with aging dams

kapakalua_dam_march_2021_dlnr.jpg
Courtesy State of Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources
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Damage from the overflow of the Kaupakalua Dam, March 2021.

Monday marked one year since a strong low-pressure system caused heavy rain and flooding throughout the state. This severe weather resulted in the overflow of the Kaupakalua Dam on Maui — causing evacuations, and heavily damaging and destroying homes.

While that dam didn't suffer any structural damage, the state Department of Land and Natural Resources decommissioned the dam last year. However, it renewed a focus on aging dams and reservoirs in the state.

"Roughly 70% to 80% of the dams in the state have a poor ranking right now — as far as condition," said Edwin Matsuda, head of the state DLNR's flood control and dam safety section. "There are outstanding deficiencies that we're working with the owners to remediate."

Matsuda says most of these structure have either outlived their life expectancy and have deferred maintenance.

"A majority of these structures were constructed during the early 1900s, prior to there being a dam safety program or dam regulations and standards that we currently do see," he said. "They were very well designed systems, but they don't have the spillway sizing, a lot of times, that we currently do like to see."

Last Thursday, a joint state Senate committee hearing discussed Senate Bill 3225. The measure proposes creating loan and grant programs for private landowners with a plantation era dam or reservoir — in order to improve structural deficiencies. It aims to assist landowners who may not be able to pay for repairs that can cost millions of dollars.

"Publicly owned dams have access to public funds, while privately owned dams may not have the same resources available to them, which may be one of the major obstacles for a private dam owner," said DLNR engineer Carty Chang during the hearing.

Chang says more than 70% of the regulated dams in the state are privately owned. And while some dam owners have the financial means to maintain their structures, Chang says there are property owners that don't have the financial resources.

Legislators are still discussing several aspects of the measure — such as resources needed to establish and administer such a program. However, qualifiers for who can take advantage

Chang gave lawmakers several of the department's recommendations.

"We would suggest excluding removal of a dam from qualifying for financial assistance. Although removal of a dam provides the safety aspect, we raised the concerns whether or not the legislature wanted the wide public benefits, such as providing ag water, recreation or flood control — which would not be realized if you remove the dam."

Chang also suggested more deteriorated structures receive priority for possible funding.

The Senate's Ways and Means, and Water and Land committees approved an updated version of SB 3225 with some guidelines. The measure is set to be heard for a third time for further discussion.

In the meantime, Matsuda says the DLNR is updating its standards for what it calls a maximum probable flood — in order to better determine the capability of dams or reservoirs. Matsuda says the standards were last updated in the 1960s, and don't reflect the heavy rain events of the last several years, and the anticipated effects of climate change.

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