New kayak tour could make Kohala Ditch self-sustaining

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Crammed in the cab of a compact pickup with a reporter and two other guests, Bill Shontell jounces his way up the windward slope of the Kohala Mountains. Guiding the Toyota through pastures of guava trees and along steep ravines, he’s checking on the reconstruction of four sections of the Kohala Ditch.

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Crammed in the cab of a compact pickup with a reporter and two other guests, Bill Shontell jounces his way up the windward slope of the Kohala Mountains. Guiding the Toyota through pastures of guava trees and along steep ravines, he’s checking on the reconstruction of four sections of the Kohala Ditch.

Shontell stops and peers at a scene where a dozen workers toil to complete a wooden flume that spans a deep ravine, and likes what he sees. The laborers will finish here and be moving on to the last site by day’s end.

“They’ll be at it two and half more weeks,” predicts Shontell, executive vice president of Surety Kohala Corp., the parent company of Kohala Ditch Co., which owns the waterway.

The timeline is an important one, because the launching of a new kayak tour of the famous ditch hinges on the last slab of treated lumber being nailed into place and millions of gallons of Kohala Mountain water spilling again through the 14.5 remaining miles of aqueduct, built in 1906 by 600 Japanese immigrants at the cost of 17 lives.

In just the latest hit to the ditch by winter storms, four flumes were damaged or ruined. An 18-foot-high surge of water swept away the pier holding up Flume 10, causing it to collapse in late December. The seams of Flume 11 popped open and the stone foundation of Flume 3 was gnawed away by flooding, causing it to drop several inches. And Flume 2 — located between two cliffs and accessible only by riding ATVs or walking through the tunnel system itself — narrowly avoided a level of destruction that would have put the waterway out of commission for years.

“One boulder was holding up the entire middle pier,” Shontell says. “The guys used 1,000 bags of cement, hand-mixed from the stream, using gravel and sand from the area.”

Workers hunched over in tunnels as low as five-and-a-half feet high, wielding picks, shovels and pieces of plywood to remove an estimated 300 tons on rock and gravel from the 150-long Pony Tunnel far back in Pololu Valley.

The only work that remains is to replace Flume 11.

The project has taken more than five months, in between periods of rain that turned access roads into slip-and-slides. It has cost close to $500,000. But Shontell likes to point out how quickly and inexpensively the work has been done compared to government jobs.

A New Life for Kohala Ditch?

“Da Ditch,” as it is fondly called, was built in a massive effort to bring water out of the moist windward hills to the sugar plantations north, west and makai of the source. When sugar production failed, the ditch brought water to diverse and often small-scale agricultural and agro-tourism operations that sprang up in the vacuum left by the departure of the plantations.

But the road hasn’t been easy.

The ditch was almost destroyed in the magnitude 6.7 Kiholo earthquake of 2006, its flumes shattered, the source of its 10 million gallon daily supply cut off. The system was rebuilt over several years and continued to suffer breakdowns. Every year, conversations are held in Kohala about how to keep the deteriorating landmark from going completely into the twilight. It’s still a black hole that Surety throws money to.

But Da Ditch just may see a new day.

“I tell them, you guys have an opportunity to set up a model for the rest of the state,” says Shontell.

He’s talking about Flumin’ Kohala, the new kayak tour set to begin operations out of Hawi on June 1. Modeled after its predecessors, Flumin’ Da Ditch and Kohala Ditch Adventures, the business will ferry visitors through the system of tunnels and flumes, and will take clients to viewpoints, waterfalls and places steeped in history.

Flumin’ Da Ditch shut down following the 2006 earthquake, and the lease for Kohala Ditch Adventures expired in February. Both of these forerunners were popular money-makers that, at their peak, served some 22,000 clients annually.

Besides being run in-house by the Kohala Ditch Co, Flumin’ Kohala will have an important distinction.

“The profits will be run back into the ditch,” Shontell explains. “User revenue and kayak revenue will be more than adequate to keep the ditch going. It conceivably could run on its own, indefinitely. We want to turn the ditch over to the users.”

The company so far has hired five guides and three managers. The bulk of the hiring will happen in May, with the work force rounding out at 22 employees. A converted doctor’s office behind Nakahara Store in downtown Hawi serves as the Flumin’ Kohala headquarters. Parking and staging areas are being built and a new four-wheel drive van waits for its first load of paying guests. Four other vans will arrive within a week.

The 25-minute ride to the kayak launch site will include a trip down the Akoni Pule Highway to a point overlooking Pololu Valley. Once at the ditch, visitors will journey through at least seven flumes and 10 earth tunnels.

Shontell’s mother was born in Pololu Valley and his parents worked on the ditch prior to World War II. He wants the tour to delve deep into the area’s history.

Burnelle Camara manages the tours and intends to give the history of the different communities that sprouted up because of the plantations, and to tell guests how the success of the sugar industry depended on the abundant flow the ditch provided.

Changing times for a landmark

When the Kiholo quake rattled the island, damage was so extensive it could have spelled the end of the line for the ditch. Instead, the community scrambled to raise $5.5 million in federal, state and private money for repairs, and in 2010 formed an organization called the Kohala Ditch Foundation to help shape the ditch’s future. In so doing, they created what Shontell considers to be a model of how the waterway must be managed if it is to endure.

Surety once controlled 20,000 acres of North Kohala countryside. Now, the company owns and manages around 5,000 acres. With assets shrinking, it’s time to make good on plans for some two dozen users and Flumin’ Kohala to form a co-op or foundation that takes full ownership and responsibility for repairing and operating the system, Shontell says.

That will take some more time. Lawyers in Honolulu are hammering out the details now. Meanwhile, Shontell pauses near the site of Flume 10 and looks at the chunk of antique construction, chainsawed and hauled back from the gulch, perched now like a lonesome relic with nothing left to do but rot into the ground.

Instead, he’ll haul the piece of flume into town and set it up where people ogle it. They’ll wonder, what’s that?

“It’s about reminding ourselves where we came from,” Shontell says.

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After all, the ditch is far more than the sum of its parts.

Email Bret Yager at byager@westhawaiitoday.com.

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