MIS files for Emergency Drought Declaration
Despite heavy rains three weeks ago, Molokai farmers are concerned that the summer may bring continued drought and adverse effects for agriculture. That concern motivated Molokai Irrigation System (MIS) board members to vote in favor of an emergency drought declaration for Maui County, which could bring government assistance.
Department of Agriculture (DOA) officials have filed the request for Gov. Abercrombie’s approval, and expect a response within a month to six weeks, according to DOA Chairperson Russell Kokobun, via video chat at last week’s MIS meeting. If the governor does declare a state of emergency for Maui County, the agricultural community may be able to access low-interest emergency loans if funds are available, according to the DOA’s Randy Teruya. The funding would be made available to individual farmers, rather than the MIS system as a whole.
During the rainfall three weeks ago, the water level of the Kualapu`u Reservoir – the 1.4 billion gallon storage for the MIS – rose six feet from its low level of 10 feet in February, according to MIS District Manager Oscar Ignacio. Since the rain, it is currently at 16.75 feet. In February of last year, the reservoir held 18 feet of water.
With no further significant rainfall expected, the reservoir’s supply will barely be enough to sustain commercial and homestead agriculture through the summer months, said MIS board member and homestead farmer Lynn DeCoite. While the emergency declaration may provide additional funding for farmers, Decoite said its main purpose is to establish on record Molokai as a drought-stricken area so that a long-term solution can be implemented not only for Molokai, but for the entire Maui County.
“It is not just Molokai. Maui is suffering, Lanai is suffering. That is why I am requesting this [emergency drought declaration] for everybody,” said DeCoite.
Some community members attending the meeting questioned whether in this time of drought, commercial MIS users such as Mycogen and Monsanto are following “best management practices,” or BMPs. They also raised concern that homesteaders are not being given priority in water usage of the MIS, as mandated by law.
“Monsanto is wasting water, shooting water cannons in the air. Forty percent is gone before it touches ground,” said one community member.
“Non-homestead users, like all agricultural users, use a large number of conservation practices and best management practices,” said manager of Monsanto Molokai Ray Foster after the meeting. “We use drip irrigation, we’ve installed a large number of grass filter strips for erosion protection…and we have significantly limited our planting over the last three years.”
Non-homestead users have also been operating on a 30 percent conservation restriction for the past two years, according to Foster.
Mycogen’s Adolph Helm, also a homesteader, said Mycogen does use cover crops, a practice commonly used in sustainable farming, but called their use a catch 22 – while cover crops are considered by many to be a BMP, they, too, require water.
“A lot of Hawaiians work for non-homesteaders,” he said. “We need to look at this holistically — how can we nurture the water system so that everyone gets water?”
Some homesteaders also told DOA officials they have noticed poor water quality from the system.
“I don’t even give my dogs that water,” said farmer Micah Buchanan, who added the water coming from the MIS to his homestead is dirty and clogs the water lines.
Teruya said that they had not received other complaints about the water quality but would “look into it.”
For many, moments of tension at the meeting stemmed from the high value of water –economically, culturally and practically.
“Homesteaders use water in order to subsist and sustain themselves, not to go out there and make money. We practice the concept of ohana and sharing,” said homesteader Moke Kim. “It’s going to come down to what’s more important: the Hawaiian way or the dollar… and you’re not going to be able to eat money.”