Several miles of the Lower Hamakua Ditch may still be put into a pipe.
Last week, the state Department of Agriculture re-issued a bid request for the project, which would channel 3.7 miles of the 26-mile-long open irrigation system into high-density polyethylene pipe.
A contract had been awarded previously, but the project was put on hold when the Federal Emergency Management Agency withdrew its support following community opposition.
The department applied for a $3.9 million FEMA grant in 2006.
Agriculture Chairman Scott Enright said the grant expired in 2010.
The department is now trying to move forward again on the project without the grant, following a resolution of legal hurdles previously raised, he said.
Enright said the department wants the project to proceed to prevent disruptions to the irrigation system, as happened during a flooding event in 2004 that put the system offline for several months.
But some Hamakua residents remain concerned it would impact the historical and aesthetic value of the century-old ditch as well as the area’s ecosystem.
About 20 attended a meeting Sunday evening in Honokaa with the chairman.
Those attending referred to the ditch as “priceless” and believe it should remain the way it is.
Enright called the ditch a “black hole” for the department’s budget, and said the project would lower maintenance costs in an area prone to erosion.
An updated cost estimate for the project wasn’t immediately available. It would impact a 5.1-mile stretch of the ditch, though not all of it would be enclosed.
Area residents at the meeting, which included owners of land the irrigation system crosses, said there are, or should be, other ways to address the issue, with some proposing an “adopt-a-ditch” program.
Enright, an Ookala resident who once oversaw the ditch as an employee of the Hamakua Sugar Company, noted liability concerns associated with volunteers taking on maintenance for the state but said he would get back to the group on the request at another meeting.
The meeting was organized by state Rep. Mark Nakashima.
Once a contract is awarded, Enright said a notice to proceed could come as early as October.
Enright said he will meet with community members again July 11 at the North Hawaii Education and Research Center.
The state took over the irrigation system after the sugar company went bankrupt in 1993.
A memorandum of agreement regarding historic preservation of the ditch was signed in 2001. Enright said it doesn’t prevent the proposed project, even if the pipe is buried.
That agreement followed an environmental impact statement in 1999 that considered piping the entire length of the ditch as one of three action options for addressing repair issues.
As potential benefits, it noted that option would reduce maintenance costs, help eliminate water loss and control accumulation of sediment. But it referred to the cost of implementation as prohibitive.
The document also noted the cultural value of the ditch, and its favored option was conducting repairs needed at the time while leaving it as an open system.
If the plan to pipe 3.7 miles of the ditch progresses, it’s possible that the pipe could be placed within the existing ditch rather than buried underneath, Enright said.
Lawmakers during this year’s session allocated $4.9 million for improvements to the system.
Enright said the state continues to maintain the ditch for use by farmers, though he noted it remains underutilized.
Email Tom Callis at tcallis@hawaiitribune- herald.com.