WAILUA, Kauai — Chuck Blay stands along the seawall that protects Kuhio Highway from the Wailua Beach surf and imagines the future.

“You might have just a wall here with water — no beach,” says Blay, a geoscientist.

As the ocean level rises, the seawall will help to block water from flooding the landward real estate — and that real estate is the legendary Coco Palms Resort.

The grand hotel where Elvis Presley’s “Blue Hawaii” was filmed and Frank Sinatra stayed has remained closed since being ravaged by Hurricane Iniki in 1992. But a decrepit shell of the old, historic building remains as demolition plans are made in preparation for the majestic resort’s planned rebirth.

Chuck Blay walks along Wailua Beach foreshore, which fluctuates in size and appearance daily based on wave activity and the volume of water moving through the Wailua river mouth. Brittany Lyte/ Civil Beat

Blay prepares to measure the profile of Wailua Beach, a popular spot for surfing and kiteboarding on the north end of the Wailua river mouth.

In 2018, the property, with its famed coconut tree-rimmed lagoon, is expected to reopen as the Coco Palms Resort by Hyatt, an estimated $135 million redevelopment project that promises a modern return to the hotel’s glory days.

One of Kauai’s only resorts set away from the oceanfront, the site of the new Coco Palms stands across the highway from Wailua Beach — just beyond the troublesome seawall that could save the hotel from potential flooding at the expense of its nearest stretch of sand.

“If you look at the long-term data, it’s amazing how this beach can be hundreds of feet wide or hardly existent at all,” Blay says. “For me, I think this is the kind of data that can be a significant consideration when you’re planning on putting in a brand new resort.”

Sea level rise, global climate change and storm surge are among the known factors that could one day cause Wailua Beach to disappear.

But Blay is more concerned by the impacts of man-made developments along the bay’s shore, such as the seawall, highway and a future luxury hotel.

That’s why he has launched a systematic, self-initiated study of sand movement at the east Kauai beach.

Combining long-term data gleaned from aerial photographs with monthly logs of sand depth and volume, the scientist hopes to create a model to predict how the beach on the north side of the Wailua river mouth will respond to climate and weather events, as well as the continued seawall presence.

Geoscientist Chuck Blay prepares to measure the profile of Wailua Beach, a popular spot for surfing and kiteboarding on the north end of the Wailua rivermouth. Brittany Lyte/ Civil Beat

“Beaches move,” Blay says as he lines a tape measure along a backshore berm about 400 feet from the lapping water. “What happens normally is sea level rises and the beach moves backward. For example, the water at one point in time used to be all the way back here at this berm.”

Blay shoves a wooden post into the sand to help him measure the height of the berm, which is covered in light vegetation, which Blay says could easily wash away if the surf were to rise again.

“If you block the movement of the sand with a road or a building or a seawall, you block the beach from relocating itself,” Blay continues.

“But the water is going to keep coming. What a seawall does is it protects the land, not the beach. If you want to save the beach, you need to move the seawall back. But if you want to protect the real estate, then I suppose you leave the seawall right where it is.”

Blay, who wears an earth tone t-shirt emblazoned with the pun, “My sediments exactly,” pulls a map from his notebook. It’s a depiction of Wailua Beach in 1988 — long, wide and deep.

Next he flips to a snapshot of the beach in 2012. At its core, the beach sand that separates the surf from the seawall is nearly vanished.

“We know Wailua Beach can disappear because it’s almost happened before,” Blay says.

In 1986, Blay hiked the entirety of Kauai’s accessible shoreline to better understand why certain areas host beaches while others don’t.

He has since closely studied the movement of sand at many of the island’s major beaches, uncovering clues along the way about how shorefront roads, hotels, seawalls and harbors can interrupt the natural flow of sand to cause temporary or even permanent beach loss.

These man-made constructions, Blay says, are far more detrimental to shoreline sand movement than factors such as sea level rise and climate change.

In the 18 months since Blay started his sand movement surveys, he hasn’t noted any dramatic changes to the shape of the beach.

Blay maps the beach’s profile by measuring elevation differences from the shoreline to the backshore. By comparing this data over time, Blay hope to be able to spot trends in sand movement. Brittany Lyte/ Civil Beat

When he has compiled and analyzed another two or three years of data, he said he expects he’ll have enough information to begin to understand how this particular beach works.

Blay says he has approached the architects helping to rebuild the Coco Palms Resort, to see if the project planners are interested in supporting his research. So far, Blay says, they are not.

But Blay said he will continue his monthly fact-gathering as a public service, and because he’s interested himself in learning how and why Wailua Beach undergoes such drastic changes.

“I’m fascinated by the science of the shoreline,” Blay says. “The real problem is not what the ocean is doing as the sea level is rising, it’s what humans have done on land. In my opinion, it’s going to become a crisis because we can’t afford it.”

“We’re talking billions of dollars to move back our shoreline development so that we can save our beaches.”

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