West Kauaʻi Residents Call for Environmental Impact Statement on Major New Hydro Project

Community calls foul on lack of public hearing on island’s hugest project of the century proposed by KIUC and AES


Marti Townsend, Earthjustice, (808) 372-1314

West Kauaʻi residents are outraged that the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) decided the new major hydro-electric project proposed by the Kauaʻi Island Utility Coop (KIUC) and AES Corporation will have “no significant impact” on the Waimea River and can thus skip doing an environmental impact statement (EIS). This project is raising community concern because it proposes to renew significant diversions of Waimea River for another century. Despite the red flags and honest questions raised in public comments on the project, DLNR issued this decision during the winter holidays and without a public hearing before the Board of Land and Natural Resources, who is ultimately responsible for the decision.

West Kauaʻi residents are calling this a moment of truth for KIUC and AES.

“Is KIUC really with the community? Is AES fully committed to partnering with us to make sure that everyone’s needs are met, including the river itself, and all of us who depend on it for our community way of life?” asked Galen Ka’ōhi, who lives along the ancient Kikiaola auwai in Waimea. “Honestly, it doesn’t seem like it when they shortcut the public process like this. We want a pono project, and that starts with a pono process.”

KIUC is proposing to contract with an international energy company called AES to rebuild the plantation-era Kōke‘e Ditch and divert up to 26 million gallons of water a day from Waimea River to generate hydro power. Taking 26 million gallons a day at high flows — for an annual average of 11 million gallons a day — works out to about 4 billion gallons of water a year from a watershed that is expected to see far less rainfall according to state projections.

KIUC and AES claim that the new hydroelectric project is necessary to meet the island’s clean energy goals and will have “no significant impact” on the West Kauaʻi environment and community. Part of the proposal involves a “pumped storage” system that simply moves water back and forth between two reservoirs and does not require constant stream diversions or risk wasting water. The less publicized, but far more controversial part of the proposal involves diverting an annual average of 11 mgd far away from the river and potentially dumping it on the Mānā Plain if there is not enough agriculture there to use the water.

“Taking 11 million gallons on average from our river and community is just doubling down on the mistakes of the past. The plantation didn’t think twice before draining our river for the last century, but we’re not going to repeat that wrong for this century,” said Kaina Mākua, a commercial kalo farmer on the West Side of Kauaʻi.

“KIUC can only say there is no significant impact from their project because they’ve avoided looking at the whole story. They downplay the harm to the river by claiming that the diversions are already “existing,” even though the plantation closed 20 years ago. They also talk about using the water to support agriculture, but offer no real plan for how to do that,” said John ʻAʻana, a retired kalo farmer in Waimea. “We know from decades of diversions for sugar that there are serious consequences to the river and to the reefs when so much water is taken and released onto Mānā Plain and dumped into storm drains like how KIUC is proposing to do.”

While most major projects usually go straight to preparing an EIS, KIUC did only an environmental assessment (EA), an initial report to determine whether the project may have a significant impact. KIUC resisted calls from the West Kauaʻi community to recognize that a significant project like this requires an EIS, even though KIUC actually began to prepare an EIS in 2019 and switched course, releasing its first draft EA in 2021. Unlike the more thorough EIS documents, EAs do not fully analyze available alternative approaches to achieve the project goals, and start from the assumption that the proposed project will not have any significant impact. Such assumptions are simply not warranted for this project because it proposes to take away 4 billion gallons of water a year from Waimea River for 65 years.

“This shady situation just highlights why it is so important for a good person to be confirmed as director of DLNR,” said Jim ʻAʻana, a retired kalo farmer and member of Pō’ai Wai Ola. “We can’t have major decisions affecting the next generation made in the dark like this. This is not the pono way to operate and they know it. We are not going to let this slide.”

Pō’ai Wai Ola, a community group established to protect the Waimea River, is concerned that KIUC has promised that the river diversions running through their hydroelectric facilities will be used for agriculture, but has offered no details about how that would actually be accomplished and ensured.

“We are farmers. We know the challenges of producing food in West Kauaʻi, and it’s not as simple as diverting millions of gallons of water and assuming it all can be used for farming. A full EIS is necessary to show how it actually makes sense,” said Wesley Yadao, an experienced kalo farmer from West Kauaʻi. “We need a real plan, and not just a sales job.”

The official finding of no significant impact was issued in the January 8, 2023 edition of The Environmental Notice. Under the law, interested citizens can file suit to challenge DLNR’s “finding of no significant impact.”

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