Kauai boasts 90 miles of sandy shoreline, more than any other island in the state. All of it is vulnerable to climate change, which poses dramatic consequences for the island’s spectacular beaches, as well as its coastal roads, homes, hotels and businesses.

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The county’s general plan, which sets priorities for growth management and community development on Kauai, requires its planners to prepare now for the uncertainties of a changing climate.

Born of this responsibility is an effort to draft a Kauai Climate Change Adaptation Plan that aims to inventory the top climate change-related impacts the island expects to see and develop a framework for dealing with them — especially when it comes to things like protecting infrastructure, conserving fresh water for agriculture, saving rare native species and making room for rising seas.

It’s impossible to anticipate it all. And with no one-size-fits-all solution, everything is on the table.

One effect of climate change is the rise of problems related to poor drainage, exemplified by the large parking lot puddle in front of the Kapaa Neighborhood Center where the county hosted its climate change open house on Tuesday night. Brittany Lyte/Civil Beat/2022

At a series of ongoing open house events hosted by the county, Kauai residents are sharing their personal climate-related concerns and helping to brainstorm mitigation strategies.

Next the county will identify major themes, such as flooding and drought, and organize public workshops on each topic staffed by scientific experts. The workshops, expected to take place this summer, will guide county planners through the process of drafting a plan.

County Planning Director Kaaina Hull said public participation is crucial.

Karen Duncan, who lives in Kapahi, attended an open house Tuesday evening in Kapaa with her 8-year-old granddaughter Laola Seraphin, who said her biggest climate change concern is the proliferation of landslides that have repeatedly shut down major roadways for extended periods of time in recent years.

Top-of-mind concerns for Duncan include beach erosion and the state-mandated conversion of cesspools.

“Where we live everyone has a cesspool, and I’d really love to put in a septic tank but I’m not in the financial position to do it,” she said. “I already put my money into the solar panels because I didn’t want to rely on fossil fuels.”

Kauai Planning Department Director Kaaina Hull said public input is critical to developing a climate change adaptation plan to guide development, natural resource protection and community resilience in the face of climate change-related impacts. 

As the surf eats away at many of Kauai’s oceanfront properties, one way of adapting involves demolishing oceanfront homes, businesses, hotels and roads and rebuilding them inland from the shore.

But managed retreat, as it’s called, is logistically complicated. It would require tremendous amounts of political will, community buy-in and money. And there’s no blueprint in Hawaii for implementing it on a large scale.

But for the first time last month Kauai County planners put to pen the conceptual beginnings of a strategy to do just that — carry out a managed retreat for some of the most vulnerable homes in West Kauai.

Included in a conceptual master plan for Waimea 400, a 417-acre parcel purchased by the county in 2019 for wetland restoration, agriculture, housing and recreation, is the suggestion that a mauka portion of the project site could be used to facilitate property swaps for families whose shorefront homes stand to be lost to sea level rise.

The West Kauai Community Plan identifies the most at-risk properties in Waimea, Hanapepe and Kekaha with a zoning designation called the special treatment coastal edge. These are the properties that the county would likely consider for the property swaps, which remain a merely theoretical climate mitigation strategy at this point, Hull said.

The idea is that the county would give these vulnerable homeowners a place to relocate their families. And the county would tear down their former homes to allow for erosion to take place.

“If the ocean is marching inward, then the beach is going to be marching inward,” Hull said. “So this would just allow that natural process to happen so we can have a beach there in perpetuity.”

Another problem that the plan may address: FEMA flood maps that help determine building standards are based on historical flooding data that doesn’t account for climate change-related impacts, such as sea level rise or intensifying rainfall events.

“The 100-year storm is now happening more like every 10 years,” Hull said. “So how do we address the fact that those building standards do not account for climate change?”

Civil Beat’s coverage of climate change is supported by the Environmental Funders Group of the Hawaii Community Foundation, Marisla Fund of the Hawaii Community Foundation and the Frost Family Foundation. 

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