How has dam safety changed since Kaloko’s deadly breach?

In 2006, exactly eight years ago, the Kaloko dam burst on Kauai, sending a wall of water into Kilauea town. Seven people were killed, including a child and a pregnant woman.

The land owner, Jimmy Pflueger, pled no contest to reckless endangering, but the state was also blamed for the disaster for failing to check the dams on a regular basis.

KHON2 found that safety protocols and inspections have come a long way statewide, but there’s still much to be done to close the loop on repairs and procedures dam owners have to put in place.

KHON2 compiled years of dam inspection data to make sure the state has been on-pace with checking out Hawaii’s 140 regulated dams and reservoirs, especially how often they are keeping tabs on the biggest and high-hazard ones.

“The higher the dam is the more energy when that water comes down, or if there’s more volume of water obviously that has the potential to kill people, too,” explained Carty Chang, chief engineer of the Dept. of Land and Natural Resources.

After revamping the approach to overseeing owners on dam safety in the wake of Kaloko, the state has gotten to just about every regulated dam and reservoir just about every 2 years.

DLNR chairman William Aila says the public is much safer now than eight years ago. “We have a baseline, we have regular inspections,” Aila said. “We could always improve upon that with additional funding, but definitely the dams and reservoirs of the state of Hawaii are safer today.”

The state has not done any official enforcement actions in the years reviewed besides some late-fee follow-ups, but officials say they have issued many letters of deficiency. However, none of those letters are easily accessible to the public.

When asked if there is a better way to track and share data about deficiencies, Edwin Matsuda, head of the Dam Safety Program, said, “We’re looking at ways that we can incorporate it into our database so it can flag up on a schedule.”

Meanwhile officials say the every-two-year cycle will also catch any follow-ups that could fall through the cracks. They recently did return visits to check up on several sites that needed work, and said they’ll press owners who are late with emergency response plans, like what they’d do if their dam breached.

Dam safety officials admit they do not yet have an Emergency Action Plan from every regulated dam and reservoir. “There are still a handful that are out,” Matsuda said. “We just sent out some notices last week and we gave them 30 days to come in.”

Three of the state’s five largest dams have Emergency Action Plans that are still due for updating. There are just a handful of inspectors and available spending for their work depends on fees collected from the owners of a shrinking number of regulation-size dams. State taxes used to back the division, but general funds were cut off several years ago in budget tightening.

“Perhaps the governor will support, as we go forward into better economic times, the request for additional general funds,” Aila said, “because that’s really a way that we can ensure compliance in a much more efficient and much quicker fashion.”

All dams big enough to be regulated will soon have to carry a certificate that most have already applied for that checks out their operational and maintenance manuals, emergency plans and clearance of deficiencies.

“There is not a deadline per se in statute,” Matsuda said, “but we do want to get them out as soon as we can because that assists our program in doing a better job.”

There is a side-effect beyond safety that could impact every resident.

The number of dams and reservoirs is shrinking in part because the regulations, fees and fix-it requirements are mounting costs for the owners, many of whom are shutting them down or dropping the water below regulated levels.

“Now that we’re requiring annual fees of owners, they’re a little more motivated to take these structures off their books and reduce their liabilities,” Matsuda said.

The trend is a problem for farmers and sustainability plans that rely on more, not less, water, especially since the state has less stored surface water than eight years ago.

“We have less, but our goal through making financing available is to increase that,” Aila said.

The department is again trying to get a constitutional amendment vote on the ballot to let dam owners get state bond funding. It first has to clear the legislature (SB 2876).

“The one place that you should really care is when you go to the supermarket,” Aila said. “With adequate surface-water supplies that are held safely, we can keep the cost of food down in Hawaii.”

To read SB 2876 in its entirety, click here.

Dams without emergency action plans in place:

  • Happy Valley
  • Hawi 5
  • Maunaolu
  • Punawai

Emergency action plans needing updating:

  • Helemano 6
  • Helemano 16
  • Kaneohe (Hoomaluhia)
  • Kemoo 5
  • Nuuanu
  • Upper Helemano
  • Wahiawa (Lake Wilson)


State’s 5 largest high-hazard dams:

  • Waiata Reservoir, Kauai
  • Wahiawa Dam (Lake Wilson), Oahu
  • Kualapuu Reservoir, Molokai
  • Kaneohe Dam (Hoomaluhia), Oahu
  • Nuuanu Dam No. 4, Oahu

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