Kauai farmers fight for livelihood

By Lara Yamada
Published On: Feb 19 2014 08:35:15 PM HST

Eight years after the Ka Loko dam breach the battle over who controls the water source continues between Jimmy Pflueger and nearby farmers.

KALIHIWAI, Hawaii -

Almost eight years to the day the man at the center of the deadly Ka Loko Dam breach on Kauai is expected to be sentenced. But as Jimmy Pflueger's latest court date closes in, farmers overshadowed by an agonizing legal display say the very water at the center of this debate -- the water that feeds their livelihood -- is in danger of disappearing.

Click here to watch Lara Yamada's report.

"We've really been hurt," said farmer David Whatmore.

In 2006, the destructive wave of water and mud from the Ka Loko Dam breach not only scraped away land, but swept away seven lives. But nearly eight years later, another problem arises.

"I grew the mangos because of the uncertainty of the water," said Whatmore.

Whatmore says decades ago the promise of plentiful water drew him and many others to cultivate the land below the Ka Loko Reservoir.

"I don't think people themselves would want us to stop farming out here," said Whatmore. "Collectively on our system, we produce over a million dollars of produce per year."

The farmers serve local markets and restaurants statewide, even exporting to the mainland and Canada. But Whatmore says ever since the dam breached, that water source has slowly diminished and the legal battle over who controls it has intensified.

"We're all scared, because we've all been bullied," said Whatmore.

In July, a judge found Ka Loko landowner Jimmy Pflueger guilty of reckless endangerment. A plea deal with state prosecutors will likely result in probation, but could include jail time.

But Whatmore says millions of dollars in legal wrangling has not stopped Pflueger's attempts to cut the water that flows to their farms.

Pflueger, the 87-year-old former car dealer, has maintained the state is to blame for the dam breach because it failed to upkeep the ditches feeding Ka Loko. He also says that as the years have passed, the web of gates and ditches leading to the reservoir are still in disrepair and still holding the same potential to create another catastrophe.

"They're all leaving this up to Mr. Pflueger to solve a problem that really isn't of his own creation. That's not fair and ultimately if it takes a lawsuit that's what will happen," said Bill McCorriston, Pflueger's attorney.

In recent months, Jimmy Pflueger has been upping his letter campaign to the state, and says it owes him money for all of that water used now to the tune of a $250 million.

In December, Whatmore says the state finally broke under the pressure of a possible lawsuit with Department of Land and Natural Resources Chair William Aila quietly ordering staff to close the gates and divert the water away from Kaloko -- and therefore -- away from farmers.

"We're angry at times, but it's mainly frustrating because we don't know what the future holds," said farmer Bev Harter.

The Waiakalua Reservoir sits on Harter's property; a water source that starts from high above.

From Mount Namahana to the Pu'u Ka Ele stream and to the Ka Loko Ditch -- and then its reservoir -- Kaloko -- are becoming the lifeline for Waikalua below it which feeds the farmers.

Today, Harter says water levels are consistently lower and dangerously low during the dry summer months. It not only threatens those farmers, but several species of endangered birds and fish.

"The lake helps keep the water table up of course," said Harter. "So, we feel if the water level goes down too low even the wells around here will dry up."

Aila says the state has always maintained Pflueger never owned the water, but his illegal grading is what really led to Kaloko's breach. Still, Aila says after repeated threats by Pflueger the state did make plans in December to the divert water and says it will only act on that if Pflueger files a lawsuit.

In a rare and recent letter to the DLNR, the Lucas Estate -- joint-owner of the Kaloko Reservoir -- says it disagrees with Pflueger and wants that water to flow.

"There's so much uncertainty now. We don't know what will happen," said Harter.

"Right now, we're this little bridge point in the middle and we're the few people trying to hang it together," said Whatmore.

Whatmore says what's at stake is not only their livelihood, but that of the generations to follow. This happens in a place not only producing what Hawaii desperately needs, but fighting to show it is worth it.

"We're doing this because we care," said Whatmore.

Aila says representatives from the Lucas Estate have begun discussions with Pflueger to try to finally settle these Water Wars.

As for Pflueger's battle in court, last month, a doctor's note pushed back his sentencing yet again from January to March.

In the meantime, farmers in the area say they are now looking for their own legal representation to try to get the protection they need.

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