In December 2020, after years of negotiating with its landlord to secure a long-term lease extension for its site in Waikiki near Diamond Head, the Outrigger Canoe Club sent some bad news to the landlord.

A panel of Outrigger real estate experts had examined the club’s proposal and raised red flags, the Outrigger’s lead negotiator, Bill Meheula, wrote in an email to Russell Motter, who was then president of the Elks Lodge 616, a neighboring club that owns the land where the Outrigger is located.

The panel’s concerns about rising ocean levels were threatening to sink the deal to extend the lease past 2055.

Outrigger Canoe Club, left, and Elk's Club, center with pool, face the effects of rising seas.
The Outrigger Canoe Club, left, and Elks Lodge 616, center with pool, face the effects of rising seas. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2022

“The panel recommended that before pursuing an amended lease that OCC study the recent research on the effects of rising sea level and King Tides, particularly during the period after 2055, and the types of shoreline restoration projects and improvements to our buildings that are needed to mitigate against these environmental challenges,” Meheula wrote, according to documents obtained by Civil Beat.

As a result, the Outrigger’s board likely wouldn’t approve the club’s proposal to the Elks, Meheula wrote. The result: without a lease extension, Outrigger’s future after 2055 would be uncertain.

Meheula did not return calls for comment.

Lease negotiations between two private beachside clubs might seem like a trivial matter, but they speak to a broader issue. Sea level rise is already having an impact on Waikiki.

State Sen. Sharon Moriwaki, whose district includes Waikiki and Kakaako, said it’s past time to prepare for when the effects of climate change will begin impacting the symbolic and geographic heart of Hawaii’s $17 billion a year tourism industry.

“It’s not like 50 years down the road,” Moriwaki said. “It’s today and tomorrow.”

Chip Fletcher, interim dean of the University of Hawaii’s School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology and chair of the Honolulu Climate Change Commission, said the Outrigger-Elks lease complication is a symbol of something bigger.

“It’s the tip of the melting iceberg,” he said.

Waikiki Beach Hotels visitor industry aerial3.
State officials are planning extensive beach improvement and maintenance projects to mitigate the effects of sea level rise on Waikiki Beach. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2018

Waikiki is hardly the only place in Hawaii at risk. In 2021, Senate and House lawmakers passed a concurrent resolution declaring a climate emergency, noting that “Hawaii remains particularly vulnerable to the dangers of disaster occurrences as a result of the effects of global warming, thereby endangering the health, safety, and welfare of the people, warranting preemptive and protective action.”

But Waikiki is getting specific attention.

For example, Moriwaki points to a bill passed last session that changes the way counties can use money generated through fees imposed in particular neighborhoods known as “special improvement districts.” While the original purpose of the 1999 law was to let counties impose fees on certain areas and use the money for business and economic development, lawmakers last session expanded the approved uses to include mitigating the effects of sea level rise.

Rick Egged, president of the Waikiki Beach Special Improvement District Association, pointed out that the measure can be used by any district in the state, not just Waikiki. But he said the measure is particularly important for Waikiki as it prepares to address issues related to the Ala Wai canal which borders the neighborhood.

Egged pointed out that Waikiki is vulnerable not just because of the rising ocean levels, but also because of the Ala Wai, waters coming from the mountains, and rising ground water. And he noted protecting Waikiki isn’t about protecting only tourists.

“We have 20,000 residents,” he said.

Proposed T-Shaped Groins In Waikiki
A proposal by the state to mitigate sea level rise in Waikiki would place a series of T-shaped structures in the ocean near the Halekulani, Sheraton and Royal Hawaiian Hotels, which would help stabilize beaches added along the shore. Hawaii DLNR EIS

While Egged said the Waikiki district association for now is deferring to the City and County of Honolulu to address issues in Waikiki near the Ala Wai, he said the organization wants to be proactive and prepare to act if needed in the future.

More immediate are plans for extensive improvement and maintenance projects for Waikiki’s most iconic beaches, extending from Kuhio Beach past the Royal Hawaiian and Halekulani Hotels to Fort DeRussy. The plans are outlined in a 1,130-page draft environmental impact statement produced by the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources.

Included in the shoreline fronting the Royal Hawaiian, Sheraton and Halekulani hotels and Fort DeRussy are a series of T-shaped structures, known as groins, that would extend into the ocean, forming offshore barriers designed to absorb the energy of waves before the waves hit land. As described in the draft environmental impact statement, sand would be placed between the groins to create beaches, which the groins would stabilize.

“An optional component of the design is the addition of a beach walkway to improve lateral shoreline access between the Royal Hawaiian, Halekūlani, and Fort DeRussy beach sectors,” the EIS says. “The beach walkway would likely follow the alignment of the existing seawalls, providing continuous lateral access along approximately 4,500 ft (0.85 mi) of shoreline.”

Dolan Eversole is an avid surfer, paddler and waterman who serves as the Waikiki Beach Management Coordinator for the University of Hawaii’s Sea Grant Program, a partnership of the School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

He acknowledges the proposed groin projects have raised concerns among surfers because of their proximity to the iconic Waikiki surf spots Populars, Paradise and Threes. But Eversole says the science indicates the groins will lessen the impact of waves hitting the shore rather than deflecting the waves back out to the ocean.

“I would not be able to support these projects if I thought they were going to have any effect on the surf spots,” he said.

“By building these groins it would actually reduce the amount of reflected wave energy, not increase it,” Eversole said.

Visions For A Future Waikiki Include One Without Cars

Broad community consensus will be key to creating plans to mitigate sea level rise in Waikiki, Moriwaki said. To that end, she said, the Legislature this past session steered approximately $400,000 to facilitate community-led planning and design to deal with the issue.

Matt Gonser, chief resilience officer for the City and County in Honolulu’s Office of Climate Change, Sustainability and Resiliency, said when dealing with sea level rise, urban planners have three options: to accommodate it, by creating places where the water can flow; to get above it, by building higher; and to not be there, by retreating.

Which will work best in Waikiki Gonser couldn’t say, but he said government and the private sector must do something.

“The assurance of sea level rise into the future obligates us to take action,” he said.

Residents and property owners will have to work through a complex series of problems. Rising streets might help prevent street flooding but could push water elsewhere, possibly causing flooding of private property. Meanwhile, parking lots located at street level or below will likely have to move.

These issues have led some people to ask whether Waikiki should have a completely redesigned transportation network, Eversole said.

“Why are we designing a future Waikiki for cars?” Eversole asked, relating a question others have raised as well.

Outrigger Canoe Club Sea Level Modeling
Modeling produced by the University of Hawaii, which was shared with Outrigger members, shows a 2-foot sea level rise creating flooding of both the Outrigger Canoe Club, outlined in yellow, and Elks Lodge 616, but does not account for a sea wall that would mitigate the impacts. University of Hawaii

Whether the Outrigger can find solutions is far from clear. The historic club, founded in 1908 near what’s now the Moana Surfrider Hotel, has a special place in Hawaii sports history. Duke Kahanamoku, the famed surfer and Olympic swimmer, was an early member. And the club claims credit for inventing beach volleyball.

Every July 4th, the clubs draws hordes to Waikiki for the Walter J. Macfarlane Memorial Regatta outrigger canoe race in Waikiki.

The club moved to its current site in the 1960s, and according to the internal discussions chronicled in documents obtained by Civil Beat, some think the club will cease to exist if it cannot stay where it is now.

The Elks was founded in 1901 and has owned the land since the 1920s.

A confidential Outrigger memo shows club leaders have contemplated a series of T-shaped groins similar to those proposed near the Halekulani. But the memo says estimated costs would be $12 million to $15 million. The project would require coordination among the Outrigger, Elks and Colony Surf condominiums, the memo says. And it’s not clear who would pay.

Without something to mitigate sea level rise, it seems certain the ocean will start encroaching into the club in coming decades. A model produced by UH and shared with Outrigger members shows a mere 1-foot increase in sea level causing water to intrude into the club’s main restaurant, the Hau Terrace, as well as the pool area of the Elks.

Eversole, who is an Outrigger member, said it’s important to note the UH model doesn’t account for the existence of high sea walls fronting both clubs, which would mitigate the effects of sea level rise. But Eversole said a confluence of events – like a rise in sea level, king tides, high waves and elevated groundwater – could cause intermittent flooding, notwithstanding the sea walls.

Despite such risks, club leaders like Meheula have urged members to approve the new proposed lease. In response to the panel of real estate experts who warned of sea level rise, Meheula wrote, “OCC is not like most lessees who can move to an alternatively (sic) site, because the Club either stays at 2909 Kalakaua or perishes regardless of ocean conditions.”

Later, a July 18 letter signed by Meheula and four other former club presidents noted the club has no “Plan B.”

“The absence of a Plan B leaves the Club in turbulent waters without a rudder, making future capital investment in club improvements and gaining new member fees a tough sell in last 10-15 years of the remaining lease,” wrote Meheula and fellow former club presidents Fred Noa, Dustin Sellers, Rob Durkin and Jon Steiner.

Despite those pleas, membership voted not to submit the proposed lease extension to the Elks. The vote, according to an Aug. 3 letter from current club president Laurie Foster, was 465-403.

The Elks’ Honolulu lodge president, Exalted Ruler Gloria Yau, said the organization is open to hearing from the Outrigger, but she said the Elks’ priorities are serving its members and the public, through endeavors like serving the homeless, public schools and veterans.

In any case, she said the Elks is in the same position as its neighbors regarding sea level rise.

“If somebody, someplace can find a solution, that’s wonderful,” she said.

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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