The state predicts sea level rise will cause at least $19 billion in damage in the next 80 years and Brad Stubbs, a Civil Beat reader who lives in Waialua, wanted to know how the government is responding to rising waters.

“How are we going to ensure that these properties, whether public or private, are receiving the support that they need?” he asked. Episode 10 of “Are We Doomed? And Other Burning Environmental Questions” put his question to government officials.

“I would say the government here has more of a plan than most governments elsewhere,” said Josh Stanbro, the chief resilience officer for the City and County of Honolulu.

But there is no set game plan, despite the fact that a 2017 report urged immediate preparation for 3.2 feet of sea level rise by 2060 and the state has already lost more than 13 miles of beach.

“While that might feel unsatisfying for people that are immediately looking for an answer, we also recognize that context matters,” said Matthew Gonser, the coastal and water program manager for the Honolulu Office of Climate Change, Sustainability and Resiliency.

Gonser said the county is working on eight different infrastructure and growth plans for different parts of Oahu. The plans will anticipate predicted sea level rise and will be submitted to the Honolulu City Council for approval in the next few years.

Richard Sterman North Shore home in Pupukea house view1.
An extension ladder, leaned against a geotextile fabric to slow erosion, provides access to the beach from one home in Pupukea. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Sam Lemmo, with the Hawaii Office of Conservation and Coastal Lands, said he’s not too worried about public infrastructure. While it might be expensive to move a road or water treatment plant, the government has the authority to do so. Private property, on the other hand, presents unique challenges when planning for sea level rise.

“The scale of it might be so grand that government may not be able to help them in any significant way,” he said.

Lemmo said he’s been investigating the possibility of tapping into funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to buy out homeowners who will lose their houses.

“We don’t tend to have those big giant, horrific, catastrophic events and so that seems to be the trigger for getting federal interest,” he said.

Twenty bills addressing sea level rise were introduced in the first week of the 2020 legislative session. While many are similar to bills that failed to pass last session, this year 36 lawmakers formed an environmental caucus, and adapting to sea level rise is one of their top priorities.

“It was disappointing to see the lack of progress at the state level last year,” Stanbro said. “We hope that the state Legislature takes the lead this session and really lays out the policy framework that will help us at the county level navigate away from the climate crisis.”

Some lifeguard towers have been moved due to erosion and high tides. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

Changing Hawaii’s Coastal Zone Management Policy

House Bill 1848, House Bill 2194 and Senate Bill 2060 seek to change the state’s coastal zone management policy to impose new restrictions on private and public construction near the coastline.

“HB 1848 would clarify that county permitting authorities can exercise discretion over whether they approve things like seawalls and shoreline hardening measures, meaning that if they don’t think that is the best adaptation option for a particular area they can deny the permit application,” said Rep. Nicole Lowen, the bill’s sponsor.

The bills would also double the minimum shoreline setback from 20 to 40 feet and address flanking, or erosion that occurs near seawalls and other shoreline hardening projects.

“It’s like a domino effect,” Stanbro said. “If you put up one wall and it’s going to accelerate the erosion on either side of that wall, and then that’s gonna make the next door neighbor put up their wall and pretty soon you’re diving off of six-foot concrete walls onto hard rock rather than onto beaches.”

A University of Hawaii study on the northeast shore of Oahu found that 45% of shoreline hardening measures, like a seawall, were constructed in response to adjacent hardening.

Current real estate law requires sellers to notify potential buyers if the property will be affected by things like noise pollution from commercial airplanes or military activities. Five bills at the Capitol seek to add a mandatory disclosure if the property will be affected by sea level rise.

House Bill 2383 would notify potential buyers that vulnerable coastal properties may one day become public property due to erosion and sea level rise, since beaches are considered public trust land in the state. A similar bill in the Senate would notify potential buyers about coastal erosion.

Hauula Kam Hwy road damage as the ocean / sea level rise.
Portions of Kamehameha Highway in Hauula have been damaged by sea level rise and erosion. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2018

Limiting New Coastal Projects

House Bill 1611 would prohibit the Board of Land and Natural Resources from approving long-term projects in areas that could be affected by sea level rise. While the bill is written to address many types of construction near the coastline, the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Cynthia Thielen, said she had the controversial rail project in mind when writing the measure.

“What on earth are we doing allowing the city to build a rail along a route … where seven of the stations will be subject to flooding,” she said last week. Thielen is one of five Republicans in the 51-member House.

Another bill, which House Speaker Scott Saiki introduced by request of another party, would increase the gasoline tax by 5 cents to “preserve and enhance” wildlife habitats affected by rising sea levels.

Five of the bills would set aside funds for the Hawaii Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation Commission to create specific sea level rise adaptation plans.

Lowen, who sponsored one of the bills, said the measure would allow the state to respond quickly when infrastructure is damaged by sea level rise.

“If we can anticipate that some roads will be impacted by chronic flooding or erosion, then we can start now to plan an alternative,” she said. “Then, when the time comes that a flood or high tide washes out a road, instead of rebuilding it exactly as it was, as we’ve done in the past, we will be ready to reroute it and rebuild it in a more resilient way that accounts for the impacts of climate change.”

The bills would require the commission to submit its recommendations to the Legislature by 2022.

Another bill focuses solely on urban Honolulu and Waikiki, and would create a pilot program to defend the shoreline between the Honolulu International Airport and Diamond Head State Monument from sea level rise and natural disasters like hurricanes.

House Bill 2207 calls for an assessment on the cost of continuing to maintain a crumbling road on the North Shore. Earlier this month part of the highway in Hauula collapsed into the ocean. A separate bill would require the Department of Transportation to develop a long-term plan to address erosion along Kamehameha Highway on the Koolauloa Coast.

“Are We Doomed? And Other Burning Environmental Questions” is funded in part by grants from the Environmental Funders Group of the Hawaii Community Foundation and the Frost Family Foundation.

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