A Dec. 11, 1987, letter on file with the state documents three important facts about the 118-year-old Ka Loko Dam nearly two decades before it breached on March 14, 2006, sending 400 million gallons of water down Wailapa Stream, killing 8 people, destroying private property and wiping out forest land.

Sent by Kilauea Irrigation Company Vice President Gordon Wentworth to the Department of Land and Natural Resources, the letter, which was obtained through the state’s open government records law, acknowledges:

*There was a spillway at Ka Loko Dam;

*There was excessive leakage from the dam’s earthen structure;

*That Kilauea Irrigation Company, then owned by C. Brewer, was “the responsible operator of the system,” not James Pflueger and the Mary Lucas Estate, who are the dam’s co-owners.

This is one of a handful of documents obtained by ”’Hawaii Reporter”’ last week that offer details about Ka Loko’s spillway — a safety feature that allows excess water to flow through it so water doesn’t erode the top of the dam and cause it to collapse — and one of the primary factors in determining why the dam breach occurred and who is criminally or civilly liable.

The letter addresses the spillway in the context of developing a fair billing strategy between the state and Kilauea Irrigation Company for water usage: “Lastly when the reservoir is full and overflowing, water which was measured at the flume on the ditch, passes over the spillway and although paid for, cannot be used by either party.”

State investigators have taken soil samples and performed tests and will soon begin excavations to determine if there was a concrete spillway and what happened to it. They also continue to review thousands of pages of documents on file with the state, including the Dec. 11, 1987 letter, and other maps and diagrams that mark a spillway at Ka Loko.

The victims’ families maintain in their June 29, 2006, lawsuit filed in the Fifth Circuit Court against Pflueger and his family’s trust, the Mary Lucas Estate, that there was a spillway covered by Pflueger or his workers to increase the capacity of water in the Ka Loko Dam.

However, Pflueger told ”’Hawaii Reporter”’ in an exclusive interview at the Ka Loko site on Friday, July 14, 2006, that he never saw a concrete spillway or any kind of spillway.

“If someone can show me what I supposedly did, I can fix it. But I don’t remember seeing a concrete spillway and don’t see one anywhere around here,” he said looking over his more than 300-acre property that spans the Kilauea hillside.

”Documents Help His Case, Pflueger Says”

Pflueger says he is pleased with the discovery of the Dec. 11, 1987, letter from Kilauea Irrigation Company to the Department of Land and Natural Resources. Regardless of the reference to the spillway, he says the letter helps him on another front.

It reads: “By a Water Rights Agreement, entered into by these parties on February 11, 1987, and recorded in Liber 20375 at Page 700, Kilauea and Lucas agree to sharing the waters from the Ka Loko System with Kilauea Irrigation Co. Inc., being the responsible operator.”

The reference to “Kilauea Irrigation Co. Inc., being the responsible operator” is what absolves him of liability or responsibility for the dam breach, Pflueger says.

Tom Hitch, who bought the Kilauea Irrigation Company from C. Brewer Co. just weeks before the dam breach, disagrees. In an earlier interview, he said that the dam did not give way because of lack of maintenance or operation. Sources close to the investigation say Hitch alleges that the breach is not his fault because Pflueger covered the spillway, raising the water capacity and pressure on the dam’s exterior.

Pflueger denies this, pointing back at Hitch. Pflueger does admit to manicuring the property on which the dam sits as he would a golf course, mowing right up to the reservoir and dam’s edge, and planting trees throughout the property to further beautify the area.

”Seepage a Warning About the Dam’s Integrity”

The Dec. 11, 1987, letter notes that “the embankment of the reservoir also has seepage, which creates a loss after ditch measurement of water which cannot be used by either party.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service and Soil Conservation Service and the Department of Land and Natural Resources note in a 1984 report, entitled the Kilauea Agricultural Water Management Study, that the dam was leaking, an indication that it had serious structural problems.

Previous to this report and the Dec. 11 letter being made public, Plueger’s attorney William McCorriston said that if his client had known in the early 1980s that the dam was leaking — and that its structural integrity was in question as a result — he would have never bought the property on which the dam sits.

But Pflueger told ”’Hawaii Reporter”’ that he never inquired about the dam’s integrity or “thought much about it” when buying the Kilauea property, because the Kilauea Irrigation Company was under contract to operate and maintain the dam and the attached water system, which took water via pipes to the farmers below.

“I had nothing to do with it,” Pflueger says.

Though he does not have the expertise to tell what caused the dam to breach, saying that is up to state investigators to determine, he notes 44 days of rain and flooding were definitely a factor in weakening the dam’s structure.

”’Editor’s note: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was cited as a author of the Kilauea Agricultural Water Management Study. While the agency is cited in the report, it was authored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service”’

”’Malia Zimmerman, editor and president of Hawaii Reporter, can be reached via email at”’ mailto:Malia@hawaiireporter.com

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Hawaii Reporter is an award-winning, independent Hawaii-based news and opinion journal founded in 2001 and launched in February 2002. The journal's staff have won a number of top awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, including the top investigative news reporting awards, business reporting awards, government reporting awards, and online news reporting awards.