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State’s $11M beach restoration project awaits final approval

West Maui official, residents call it ‘a temporary solution,’ call for managed retreat

Kaanapali Beach, shown in April 2020 when Maui County was in the early stages of the pandemic-forced lockdown, has long been impacted by erosion as rising sea levels swept away sand and developments grew along the shoreline. The state is now proposing an $11 million project to dig up sand from offshore to replenish the beach. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

While mitigating the impacts of rising water levels and coastal erosion in West Maui is crucial, a proposed $11 million project awaiting final approvals and permitting to begin beach restoration next year is just “a temporary solution” and might not be the best use of taxpayer money, a West Maui official said.

The state is proposing a restoration and berm enhancement project to bring the Kaanapali Beach shoreline between Hanakaoo Beach Park and Hanakaoo Point back to what it was in 1988, according to a final environmental impact statement for the project, which was approved by the state Board of Land and Natural Resources in October and published last week in the state Office of Environmental Quality Control’s “The Environmental Notice.”

“Kaanapali Beach has been negatively impacted by chronic erosion and extreme seasonal erosion over the previous four decades,” the report said. “The rate and severity of damage has accelerated likely due to sea level rise and recent record high water levels.”

Roughly 14 percent of West Maui beaches have been completely lost to erosion, with sea level rise a primary culprit, and many more beaches in the region are “substantially narrowing,” Coastal Hazards Specialist Tara Owens of the University of Hawaii Sea Grant College Program said.

According to the EIS, the proposed beach berm enhancement project would raise the elevation of the beach by 3.5 feet for the section between Hanakaoo Point and Puu Kekaa, also known as Black Rock, which has been subject to higher rates of erosion.

About 75,000 cubic yards of compatible sand is needed for the proposed project, with 50,000 and 25,000 cubic yards allocated to the Hanakaoo and Kaanapali sections, respectively.

The sand would be recovered from an 8.5-acre sand deposit located about 150 feet offshore of Puu Kekaa in a water depth between 28 to 56 feet.

Beach restoration is also proposed for the section of beach between Hanakaoo Beach Park and Hanakaoo Point.

“While acknowledging that it is not a permanent solution, beach restoration can be a very useful tool as part of an ecosystem-based adaptation strategy,” said Owens, also the science and technical adviser to the Maui County Planning Department.

Ecosystem-based adaptation involves preserving and restoring natural systems that buffer the impacts of erosion and flooding, such as reefs, wetlands, beaches and dunes, which can be used along with other adaptive strategies such as accommodation and retreat. Accommodation focuses on improving current developments, such as elevating a building, which can work in areas that are subject to flooding. Managed retreat involves moving infrastructure away from the shoreline.

According to the EIS, the project would require heavy equipment operating on the beach and a moored crane barge equipped with a clamshell bucket would be used to recover sand.

Barges would be rotating between the sand deposit and two off-loading sites, where the barges would be moored to an elevated trestle or floating bridge to shore. The sand would be transferred to shore along the trestle or bridge system.

Land-based equipment would then transfer the sand from the shoreline to the placement area where crews would spread sand along the shoreline.

With sea levels anticipated to rise around 3 feet by the year 2100, Kaanapali, and many areas in West Maui, will be subject to worsening and more frequent ocean flooding and erosion events.

Maui beaches have been the most impacted by erosion statewide, Owens said Tuesday, and research indicates that 85 percent of the island’s beaches are experiencing long-term erosion.

“West Maui has been one of the more heavily impacted areas in recent years, owing to depleted sand supply and narrowing or lost beaches in areas where buildings and infrastructure were built close to the shoreline,” she said.

An increase in human impact can also speed erosion — Kaanapali Beach draws about 500,000 visitors annually during a typical year, according to the EIS.

The proposed project is located on state property and is lined with multiple resorts like Kaanapali Alii, Sheraton Maui Resort & Spa and Kaanapali Beach Hotel. It’s intended to mitigate the impacts of rising water levels and coastal erosion, including sand loss, which has been an issue since 1990.

An erosion event in 2003 at Hanakaoo Point resulted in the loss of up to 30 feet of vegetated land and numerous trees. More than 70,000 sandbags were placed and steel plates installed in efforts to protect the shoreline, costing “several hundred thousand dollars,” according to the EIS.

The sandbags ended up breaking down within a few weeks due to exposure to the sun, with many floating offshore and becoming an “environmental nuisance.”

A severe Kona storm in 2008 and later a southern swell in 2013 caused rapid beach loss, land erosion and damage to the beachwalk in 2008.

In response, 400 sandbags were installed under the remaining portion of the beachwalk to prevent further undermining and collapse. However, in 2015, this area once again experienced an erosion event that threatened the beachwalk.

Large swells along West Maui between 2017 and 2019 also caused severe erosion at multiple properties, prompting the use of more sandbags or sand-filled mattresses.

“When significant erosion events occur, it seems as though that each worse event is even worse than the previous event,” said Maui County Council Member Tamara Paltin, who holds the West Maui residency seat and is a former Lahaina lifeguard. “In general, I back up my community — I don’t think this would be a good spending of taxpayers’ money because it’s a temporary solution and we know the problem is going to get worse.”

Calling the project a “band-aid,” Paltin on Monday afternoon agreed that managed retreat and strategic relocation is more of a long-term solution and felt the money would be better spent for things like lifeguards and medical services in Kaanapali.

And, millions of dollars could be wasted if a strong swell hits from an unpredictable side, taking all the newly recovered sand away in one fell swoop, she added.

According to the EIS, the project was discussed in March with the County of Maui, the West Maui Preservation Association and Maui Surfrider Foundation, where the main concerns raised included the need for managed retreat instead.

The community also raised concerns over the environmental and cultural impacts to the area during work. West Maui residents at a BLNR meeting in October said they would take whatever action necessary to stop the project, which they felt would damage the existing reef.

“Beach restoration is a short- to mid-term solution, intended to restore coastal resources while long-term solutions are investigated and implemented,” the state Department of Land and Natural Resources wrote in a letter responding to public concerns.

While this strategy is “not the answer to sea level rise adaption,” the department wrote, it allows officials to manage and remedy erosion effects and buy time while figuring out what managed retreat looks like.

Anticipated costs for the project are $11,125,000 and may take up to two and a half months to complete during the fall and winter months of 2022. Funding for the project will be provided by both DLNR and the Kaanapali Operations Association.

The final EIS has been submitted and is pending acceptance from Gov. David Ige. If approved, the project will still require multiple permits.

* Dakota Grossman can be reached at dgrossman@mauinews.com.

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