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Future of Waikīkī Beaches May Rely on $12M Shoreline Stabilization Project

Dan Dennison
Hawaiʻi Department of Land and Natural Resources

Waikīkī’s iconic beaches may be getting a $12 million facelift as part of the state’s effort to increase the shoreline’s resilience to climate change, coastal erosion, and sea level rise.

After decades of piecemeal solutions, the Waikīkī Beach Improvement and Maintenance Program offers a long-range plan to stabilize the shoreline from Fort DeRussy to Kūhiō Beach.

Waikīkī’s beaches are filled with tourists sprawled out on beach towels, under umbrellas, or lugging that surfboard rental across the sand. But it might surprise many to know these beaches are almost entirely man-made.

George Kam, who grew up surfing in Waikīkī, says the area was once filled with fishponds, taro patches, and rice paddies.

"How do we mālama this place? And look back to history and what was and what wasn’t. When they say no more sand, no, we have more sand in Waikīkī Beach than we’ve ever had," Kam said.

Kam, Chairman of the Board at the Hawaiʻi Tourism Authority, says any future changes to Waikīkī’s beaches need to be in the best interest of not only visitors but kamaʻāina as well.

"Granted we no can pull all the hotels back. But how do we work with nature, not against nature?"

Kam is part of a group of government officials, industry executives, and environmentalists coming up with a long-term master plan to preserve Waikīkī’s beaches.

"If we’re projecting out 20, 30, 50 years from now, how do we maintain beaches in portions of Waikiki? Where are the priorities for maintaining beaches? Because we might get to a place where we're going to have to decide to sacrifice some areas and just let them be erodable," said University of Hawaiʻi Coastal Geologist Dolan Eversole, a technical advisor for the Waikīkī Beach Improvement and Maintenance Program.

Proposed by the Hawaiʻi Department of Land and Natural Resources in partnership with the Waikīkī Beach Special Improvement District Association, the plan calls for replenishing sand along the shoreline every five to 10 years and building coastal armor — sea walls and groins — to protect the shoreline.

"Without a sandy beach there, you would have wet seawalls in front of the hotels and very limited access," he said.

Rick Egged, President of the Waikīkī Improvement Association, says losing Waikīkī’s beaches could amount to billions of dollars in lost revenue.

"The beach itself is a tremendous asset that’s worth more than $2 billion in revenue a year, the beach alone. Going into the future dealing with climate change and sea level rise, we need to create a buffer between properties and the ocean," Egged told Hawaiʻi Public Radio.

Click here to read the environmental impact statement for the Waikīkī Beach Improvement and Maintenance Program. Public comment on the EIS has closed.

This summer, Hawaiʻi Public Radio brings you a closer look at all things Waikīkī, but not just the tourism numbers.

Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi is a general assignment reporter at Hawaiʻi Public Radio. Her commitment to her Native Hawaiian community and her fluency in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi has led her to build a de facto ʻōiwi beat at the news station. Send your story ideas to her at khiraishi@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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