SOUTH KOHALA, Hawaii Island — Beachgoers at five state beach parks in Hawaii could be swimming at their own risk more often this summer as the pandemic’s financial toll on the Division of State Parks has left the agency unable to cover the costs of lifeguards.

Since the state pulled funding last year, a couple of counties have managed to pick up the tab to keep lifeguard towers staffed. But county officials throughout the state have argued that it’s the state’s responsibility to ensure safety at its parks. 

As counties continue to explore their options, including reducing services or pulling lifeguards off some of the islands’ most popular beaches, officials have stressed the importance of those life-saving personnel.

“I think the benefits of having the service there is huge for our community and our visitors alike,” said Darwin Okinaka, Hawaii Fire Department assistant fire chief of emergency operations. “And we really don’t want to see this come to an end, and we will do everything we can in our powers to keep it going, but on the other end of it we understand the situation and we just can hope for the best.”

The state has in the past paid the counties to assign lifeguards to state-managed beach parks throughout the islands, including:

  • Hapuna Beach State Recreation Area, Hawaii island;
  • Maniniowali Beach (often referred to as Kua Bay) in Kekaha Kai State Park, Hawaii island;
  • Makena Beach (also known as “Big Beach” or Oneloa Beach) in Makena State Park, Maui;
  • Kee Beach in Haena State Park, Kauai;
  • Keawaula Beach in Kaena Point State Park, Oahu.
Warning signs advise beachgoers of hazardous conditions at Hapuna Beach State Recreation Area on Hawaii island. Cameron Miculka/Civil Beat/2021

The beaches’ popularity has kept lifeguards busy. From July 2018 through June 2019, when about 728,000 people visited Maui’s Makena Beach, lifeguards made six rescues and 466 first-aid assists, said Jeffrey Giesea, battalion chief of ocean safety at the Maui Fire Department. They also logged more than 74,000 actions considered likely to have prevented injury.

State parks have taken a big financial hit in the past year. At the pandemic’s peak, DLNR said, parks were losing $500,000 in revenue every month. The agency suspended funding for lifeguard contracts at most of the parks last year, and said in a statement there won’t be enough income to cover any of the five contracts this coming year.

“State Parks is now very challenged to simply cover statewide park operations over the next few years – depending on certain economic policy outcomes,” Curt Cottrell, administrator of the Division of State Parks, wrote in a statement. Cottrell said the department is currently looking at how to run the parks with a possible 20% cut in general funds.

Before the pandemic, state parks got a $2 million share of transient accommodation taxes each fiscal year, but that’s been suspended. Despite increases to park fees, Cottrell said the drop in tourism, coupled with the agency’s current spending limit, means revenue won’t be enough to cover the cost of any of the five contracts. The agency needs the park revenue and an increased spending limit, he said, “just to cover basic park operations and offset the proposed reduction in general funds for operations.”

Cottrell said the agency is looking at the possibility of partially funding lifeguard services on weekends and holidays, as it’s doing now at Keawaula Beach at Kaena Point State Park on Oahu.

DLNR has in the past advocated for the contracts to be wholly funded by state hotel tax revenues. Last year, state lawmakers considered a bill to dedicate $5 million in transient accommodation tax revenues to lifeguard services, including such items as upgrades to towers and equipment, at state beach parks.

Cottrell told senators the division spends $3.3 million a year on the five contracts, but that doesn’t cover the full cost of services. The $5 million, he said, would cover the contracts as well as upgrades to towers and equipment. Although senators approved the bill in March days before the state would confirm its first case of COVID-19, the legislation failed to progress through the House.

Popular Beaches, But Dangerous

Standing on the white sands at Hapuna Beach State Recreation Area on Hawaii island, it’s not hard to see why it’s so often listed among the nation’s best beaches. On a given weekend, Hapuna Beach and Maniniowali Beach to the south each draw from 1,000 to 1,500 visitors, said Okinaka. But shore breaks create the potential for serious injuries. From 2009 to 2017, Hapuna Beach had the second-highest number of spinal-cord injuries in the state, second only to Maui’s Makena Beach, according to the state’s Ocean Safety website.

Lifeguards have staffed Hapuna Beach State Park since at least 2007 and Maniniowali Beach in Kekaha Kai State Park since July 2019. Okinaka said he has no doubt those lifeguards offer a sense of safety beachgoers don’t want to lose.

“It’s almost a no-brainer that having someone there to be able to intervene if there is an emergency versus waiting possibly up to 15 minutes for units to respond for any type of intervention, that in itself is huge, and it speaks for itself,” he said.

Like Hapuna, Makena Beach is very popular with residents and tourists. From emergency response to communicating hazards to recommending alternative beaches less experienced swimmers may find safer, Giesea said lifeguards have prevented injuries and worse.

“And nobody disputes that,” he said. “It’s pretty well-recognized by everybody in the entire decision-making fabric here between the county and the state.”

Some Counties Picking Up The Tab

The state told Hawaii County last June it would no longer be funding lifeguard services at Hapuna Beach because of lost revenue. Funding for lifeguards at Maniniowali expires in June. The two contracts cover a total of 13 positions — nine at Hapuna and four at Maniniowali. Okinaka said the loss of funding doesn’t affect rescue watercraft operators assigned to Hapuna because the county pays for those positions.

The county managed to keep paying for Hapuna Beach’s lifeguards with federal coronavirus relief dollars from July through the end of 2020, and the county has since used its general fund. West Hawaii Today reported that the contracts for the two beaches come to a combined total of more than $1.3 million.

Cyrus Johnasen, spokesman for the mayor’s office, said keeping lifeguards at both beaches is an “absolute priority” given their popularity and hazards. He said the administration has been working with the state and governor’s office on how to maintain funding. 

“Because the two beaches are state beaches, we believe that the burden falls on the state to cover that cost, particularly through DLNR,” Johnasen said. If the state’s unwilling to cover costs, he said the county is “going to have to find that money somewhere else,” and talks with the governor’s office have included identifying what those sources might be.

A Hawaii County ocean safety officer watches beachgoers from a lifeguard tower at Maniniowali Beach, also referred to as Kua Bay. Cameron Miculka/Civil Beat

On Kauai, the county has been using grant funds to continue lifeguard services at Kee Beach in Haena State Park since the state suspended funding in April, county managing director Michael Dahilig wrote in an email. Fire Chief Steven Goble said the agreement with the state would have paid about $390,000 in the current fiscal year.

Goble said there were a number of drownings reported at Kee Beach before lifeguards began staffing the tower in 2008. The beach’s lifeguards now also keep an eye on the head of Kalalau Trail and provide first response for anyone hurt or endangered along the Na Pali Coast.

Dahilig wrote, “all options are on the table” for finding a way to pay for the lifeguards.

“However, this is a state facility and we need to dialogue with the state on how to keep people safe there,” he wrote. “Given our limited resources, we anticipate difficulty adding payroll costs to a stretched budget picture.”

On Oahu, an agreement between the state and the city’s Ocean Safety and Lifeguard Services division pays for lifeguards at Keawaula Beach on weekends and holidays only. John Titchen, chief of Honolulu ocean safety, said the current agreement includes about $600,000, which lets the division dedicate three lifeguards at a tower at the park on weekends and holidays and pay for a mobile response team and supervisor. That agreement runs through June, and Titchen said the division is hoping the contract is renewed for the upcoming year. As of now, he said, the division “is not pursuing other funding options as it is a state park.”

Lifeguard services at Maui’s Makena Beach stopped April 3, one day after the state notified the county it cut funding “effective immediately,” Giesea said. Lifeguards started staffing Makena in 2009, and for each of the last two years, funding for the contract has been more than $1 million.

Everyone assigned to Makena Beach was able to be moved to fill vacancies elsewhere in the Ocean Safety Bureau, which prevented furloughs and layoffs.

Since April 3, Giesea said, the Maui Fire Department has twice responded to “significant injuries” at Makena Beach when lifeguards could have provided quicker care. In three other incidents, lifeguards could have provided assistance.

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About the Author

  • Cameron Miculka
    Cameron Miculka is a freelance journalist. He is a former staff journalist for West Hawaii Today in Kailua-Kona, and he has previously worked as a journalist at the Pacific Daily News in Hagatna, Guam, and the Weimar Mercury in Colorado County, Texas. He is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin School of Journalism and currently lives in Glasgow, Scotland, where he is pursuing a master's degree in Public and Urban Policy at the University of Glasgow.