Dramatic erosion is striking Sunset Beach. Old-timers report having never seen it this bad. Published studies lend support to these observations.

Although winter waves are the immediate cause, the subtle operator behind the scene is slowly accelerating sea level rise. According to the recently released 4th National Climate Assessment, global mean sea level is very likely to rise 1 to 4 feet by the end of the century.

A beach is an environment defined by its position at the edge of the ocean. If the ocean is rising, the beach has to move landward. Coastal scientists conceptualize this process as the beach seeking its “equilibrium profile.”

In other words, our shorelines are moving.

Sinking feeling: The eroding coastline along Sunset Beach, Dec. 13. Mike Foley

Coastal lands have been developed with the assumption that the shoreline would not move. Now, a slow-motion collision is taking place between moving shorelines and beachfront homes and roads.

“Shoreline” is a legal term. It marks the boundary between the public beach and private lands. A moving shoreline triggers questions about ownership, and other issues.

Historically, threatened homes and roads have been protected by seawalls. But this destroys beaches. In fact, on Kauai, Oahu and Maui we have lost over 13 miles of beach because of this shoreline hardening.

Anyone familiar with Sunset Beach would agree that it is a unique and world-famous beach that deserves special protection. If we allow seawalls on Sunset Beach, we will see it disappear as well.

‘Learn To Live With Water’

In an interview, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell stated that we must “learn to live with water” and “soften the shoreline.” This messaging is incredibly powerful and the first time an elected official in Hawaii has used such forward-thinking language in public.

Given the reality of sea level rise, his words provide an important overarching framework for how to deal with coastal management issues now and in the future.

Poignantly, the mayor’s message reflects long-standing goals of the Hawaii Coastal Zone Management policy: provide, protect and enhance 1) open space, 2) public access and 3) the coastal and marine environment. The primary purpose and objectives of the Hawaii CZM policy 205A and the ROH Chapter 23- Shoreline setbacks are to protect and preserve the natural shoreline, especially the sandy beach.

It is our obligation as stewards of the present to safeguard beaches for our children.

On Dec. 11, in response to queries by Suzanne Case, chairperson of the state Board of Land and Natural Resources, whose responsibility it is to manage public beach lands, Attorney General Doug Chin released an opinion that the state owns all lands makai of the shoreline. By extension, he wrote, if the shoreline moves mauka because of erosion or sea level rise, the ownership line also moves mauka.

On the basis of case law, he laid out that ownership by the state is not a “taking” and the state does not have to acquire these lands by legal action. Neither is the former owner owed compensation. He also reiterates past decisions that loss of lands by “permanent encroachment of the waters” (erosion) is one of the hazards that comes with owning coastal land.

Remarkably, we are witnessing an alignment of county and state approaches to beach management in a regime of rising sea level. An alignment to protect the beach.

I believe beaches belong to our children. It is our obligation as stewards of the present to safeguard beaches for their future.

It is good to see our leaders feel the same way.

Community Voices aims to encourage broad discussion on many topics of community interest. It’s kind of a cross between Letters to the Editor and op-eds. This is your space to talk about important issues or interesting people who are making a difference in our world. Column lengths should be no more than 800 words and we need a current photo of the author and a bio. We welcome video commentary and other multimedia formats. Send to news@civilbeat.org. The opinions and information expressed in Community Voices are solely those of the authors and not Civil Beat.

About the Author