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Kohala Ditch: A lifeline to North Kohala agriculture in the past, present and future

Updated: 
August 9, 2016 - 12:05am

For tourists, floating down the Kohala Ditch is a unique Hawaiian eco-tourism experience. But for locals, it has a rich history that connects the past and the present and provides hope for a sustainable future in Kohala. Efforts are now underway to ensure a long-term future operator for the ditch.

When the first North Kohala sugar plantation was founded in1864, there was a struggle to find enough water to grow the thirsty sugarcane. Inconsistent rain and withering trade winds often threatened the very existence of the six plantations operating in Kohala at the turn of the 20th century.

Hawi Plantation was particularly susceptible. Its owner, John Hind, spent years seeking a solution to the problem, finally finding an answer in the inaccessible canyons of Kohala Mountain. In 1904, Hind and his partners, J.T. McCrossan and Parker Ranch owner Sam Parker, incorporated the Kohala Ditch Company and hired the best engineers and surveyors of the day, along with hundreds of skilled laborers from Japan, to build the Kohala Ditch system.

Beginning in January 1905 with a starting budget of $600,000, multiple crews worked 24-hour days for 18 months to build it. Crews hand drilled through solid rock, blasted with dynamite and carved trails sometimes more than a thousand feet up the cliffs in Kohala, while fighting harsh terrain, bone-numbing chill, heavy rain, flooding, landslides and utter isolation in the remote wilderness. Seventeen men lost their lives in the effort.

Completed in June 1906, the system eventually expanded to 16 miles of tunnels, six miles of open ditches and 29 flumes. The irrigation doubled sugarcane production, increasing demand for employees, many who came from all over the world. Some families still on the island are descendants of those who originally came to Kohala to take part in the success brought by the ditch.

Although the last sugar plantation closed in 1975, the Kohala Ditch still supplies vital agricultural water to several dozen users in North Kohala, including a variety of farms, orchards, ranches, one of the largest dairies remaining in the state and even a small hydro-electric facility that sells renewable power to HELCO.

Bill Shontell is executive vice president of Surety Kohala Corporation, the parent company of the Kohala Ditch Company, LLC which has continued operating and maintaining the ditch. Born and raised in Kohala, he has a strong tie to the ditch as his grandfather, Julian Kaholo, was employed as a ditch tender on the Kohala Ditch and his mother was born at the ditch tender’s cabin in Pololu Valley.

According to Shontell, the ditch continues to be a lifeline for North Kohala agriculture and is a key to growing a fiscally viable, self-sustaining, agriculture-based economic engine for Kohala.

He notes, however, that Surety Kohala is in the midst of slowly divesting its Kohala land assets and winding down operations in Kohala – a process that will take several years to complete. As a result, the ditch needs to be placed in the hands of those willing and able to keep it operating.

With assistance from Kohala Ditch Company, the users of the system are now in the process of forming a consumer cooperative association (CCA) so that they will be able to continue operation of the ditch long after Surety has gone. Setting up a self-sustaining CCA will take at least two to three years to complete.

A group of individuals including Kije Hazelwood, Kirk Eubanks, Lani Eubanks, Jeff Allen and others has been meeting regularly to wrangle with the complexities of forming the CCA, and are committed to completing this task to move the ditch into the future as an asset to Kohala.

The easiest way to get a first-hand look at the ditch and learn more about its history are on kayak tours led by local guides from Flumin’ Kohala, an eco-tour company formed in November 2014.

Starting in Hawi, the tour begins with a 40-minute off-road tour onto private lands where picturesque vistas of sea cliffs, waterfalls and canyons abound. After a 10-minute nature hike over one of the Kohala Ditch flumes — a bridge to carry water over gulches — visitors are launched on a three-mile ridedown the ditch.

Revenues generated by the kayak tour are directed toward rebuilding and maintaining the ditch.

“The goal for the ditch is to be economically self-sustaining and the revenues provided by the kayak concession and agricultural water users combined make that an attainable goal,” Shontell said.

With the same hard work, perseverance and dedication shown by the original founders and builders of the Kohala Ditch, the future CCA group plans to keep it alive as a source of prosperity and hope for all of Kohala.

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