Hydro Good or Bad?

OK, here we go. This is the issue, or rather the incident that made me want to start blogging about Kaua`i.

Back in December, I saw a government notice in the newspaper about some company applying for permits
to build a hydroelectric plant on Kaua`i. Alternative, renewable energy is good, especially for an island that
runs its generators on ever more expensive imported oil. It would be ideal to use the energy we have, and falling water is usually abundant here.

Fortunately, such proposals are available for public scrutiny, and I went searching for the documents online
at the Federal Energy Regulatory Comission (FERC docket P-12534). Buried in one of the PDFs is the following key diagram:

Map of the proposed hydro-electric project

So the proposed dam and reservoir is immediately (about 1000 feet) upstream of the Wailua Falls, just outside the Wailua River State Park. There are plenty of reservoirs on Kaua`i leftover from the days of irrigating sugar cane, so one more isn’t a big deal. Still, you’d think they could use one of the existing ones (I hope to report on the Alexander Reservoir after an upcoming Sierra Club hike). More seriously, the flow over the falls will be greatly reduced, even stopped in times of drought, as is currently done with catchments above 800-foot Waipo`o Falls in Waimea Canyon. And I don’t want to be an alarmist, but any crack or failure in the earth filled dam will silt up the pool below the falls.

The second impact on the public will be the destruction of the South Fork of the Wailua River due to the placement of the powerhouse and it’s access road. The map shows it directly along the river or perhaps on a private land enclave within the State Park. This is an undeveloped area of forest and riparian habitat, lush, green and natural as seen from the lookout on Kuamo`o Road. The natural trace of the river will be interrupted by the powerhouse, and the pristine banks will be cut through by its access road (not shown on the proposal map).

As if that weren’t enough, the power transmission lines and their inevitable access road are mapped straight over a forest reserve on Kalepa Ridge. Again, this is a mostly unspoiled natural feature that is visible to everyone from the major highway between Lihu`e and Kapa`a. Who knows, maybe this will open up Kalepa ridge to hiking, but why can’t we get a trail without a powerline–there’s a novel concept.

I hope I’ve shown that there are major flaws with this hydro-electric project as proposed. Does that mean that hydro-electricity is bad? Not at all, just that this landscape-intensive source needs careful thought and placement. Hopefully, there will be chances for public input, time for redesign, and hopefully relocation of this project. We need hydro-electricity on Kaua`i, but like all the development that’s proposed, we also need to think about where we put it and how we integrate it into our landscape.

I have to add that our bureaucracies seem to be doing their jobs because the Hawaii Department of Health and the US Department of the Interior filed comments notifying the applicant about the environmental regulations that apply.

Printed from: http://great-hikes.com/blog/hydro-good-or-bad-2/.
© 2024.


  1. Mark says:

    Technically speaking, how are concerns from members of the public taken into account? It sounds like the process is open enough that you could legitimately get involved if you understand it. But will the process bring people from the area into the discussion before permission is granted?

  2. I’m not sure yet how this process really works. As far as I can tell, agencies, competing companies and public groups and individuals are now free to comment on the application. The government agencies tell the company all the regulation that apply to their proposed project, companies get to state their case for fair competition I imagine, and the public gets to voice anything it wants to about the proposal. What is unclear is how public comment is taken into account. Among the regulations or in the rest of the process before permits are granted, there may be some form of further public input. For example, companies are often required to hold public meetings to present the project and answer questions. I do not know

    The big question is: can public opposition stop a project and how? I’m not a lawyer, but it seems logical to me that it cannot stop it directly, because if the owners comply with all regulations and don’t break any laws, it seems they should be allowed to do it. It’s a case of Anglo-Saxon law heritage that an action doesn’t have to be allowed by law (as in Napoleanic code I believe), it suffices to not be disallowed. We as citizens do not vote on every action taken by the government’s bureaucracy, we elect representatives to make the laws that say how the bureaucracy should take action.

    What ends up happening is that citizens and groups of citizens who oppose something apply pressure and force the bureaucracy to apply regulations. The typical case is suing the owners/applicants in order to force them to comply with environmental regulations that are so often ignored. After that, I believe citizens can still mobilize and apply the pressure of public opinion, which is what I’m trying to do here. The more people who know about this ill-proposed dam, the more I think will voice opinions locally against it. After that, I hope that the applicants are sensitive to local concerns and are willing to work with the community for the benefit of everyone.

    After looking at some of the material on the FERC site, I realized I could still submit a formal comment to this dam application. So I rewrote my opinions and observations from the original post and submitted them as comment on the proposal by an individual. They were accepted and can now be seen here. I also included 3 digital photographs showing the beautiful Wailua Falls and River in their current pristine state. I hope that by “putting a face” on the areas at risk, I can show what is really at stake and sensitize the bureaucrats and the applicants to the value that residents like myself place on our remaining unspoiled environment.

  3. Mark says:

    It’s unfortunate that the FERC system has done something odd to the JPEGs. I cannot view them when I download them from their site.We can only hope that your caveats come up in a public discussion about the project. Maybe some sort of compromise can be reached. Maybe the folks preparing the initial plans simply were thinking abstractly about ease of extracting power from the falling water and didn’t stop to think yet about the impact on the beauty of the land. Heck, we fail to notice or at least manage to misunderstand requirements fairly often. I wouldn’t be suprised if the same happened in other engineering projects.

  4. Andy says:

    The photo links in my accepted comments on the FERC website are now working. You can see them in this list.

  5. Deborah says:

    If you’ve not already, you should connect with Ken Stokes, author of “Tending the Garden Island.” I’m glad to see people like you making your home on the island.

  6. Andy says:

    Thanks. I found “Tending the Garden Island” on the web, I’ll definitely look into it.

  7. Bryan says:

    You seem to be aware of potential threats to the island…Have you looked into Dow AgroSciences…They’re a chemical company who has just leased 3,400 acres of land on kauai for corn seed research…sound like GMO to anyone else? Let me know what you think.


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