Maui residents are already living with the reality of climate change and sea level rise.

Maui County locator map

This summer they dealt with a massive swell that sent water over coastal streets, leading to road closures. In the weeks that followed, accelerated coastal erosion exposed iwi kupuna, or ancestral skeletal remains, along a West Maui shoreline.

But there are a number of things the county government can do to protect some of Maui’s beach parks and adapt, even as the water creeps up in the years to come, a new county-commissioned study found.

“This is new. Nobody really knows exactly what the right path is,” Jennifer Maydan, a Maui County planner, said about the push to safeguard county beach parks against climate change. “But we have to use data and science to inform us.”

Maui County is studying which beach parks are most vulnerable to sea level rise. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

Maui County recently unveiled a study that examines how sea level rise might change the landscape and residents’ ability to use dozens of parks from East Maui to Molokai. As part of the study, which is still ongoing, the government created an online tool that allows residents to search for their favorite beach park on an interactive map and learn about how each place might weather sea level rise.

The study examined 65 of the county’s parks, all of which are expected to face some sort of long-term change to the shoreline. The big question the study sought to answer is which of those parks might experience the greatest threats — and what actions the county can take to protect Maui’s precious natural resources.

“We’re looking at what the threats are and identifying the steps to proactively plan for the evolution of these parks,” Maydan said.

In Maui County, residents are acutely aware of the numerous threats to the islands’ beaches, from private landowners blocking access with gates to homeowners’ seawalls protecting one property at the expense of their neighbors. Those tensions are only expected to grow as communities grapple with receding coastlines in the decades to come.

A screenshot of the county's new adaptation and mapping tool shows beach parks affected by sea level rise and what can be done in response.
A screenshot of the county’s new adaptation and mapping tool shows beach parks affected by sea level rise and what can be done in response. Courtesy: Maui County/Screenshot/2022

Over the last century, miles of Hawaii’s beaches have already drastically narrowed or disappeared entirely. Research has shown that 70% of beaches throughout Hawaii are dealing with erosion, threatening the islands’ vital coastal ecosystems, Native Hawaiians’ cultural practices, recreation and the public’s long-standing right to access shorelines, according to the Department of Land and Natural Resources. Beaches and sand dunes also help protect coastal homes, businesses and roadways from flooding, and are what attracts millions of tourists to the islands.

Among the study’s main findings: 46 parks — 72% of those included in the study — are expected to experience flooding or land loss within the next 30 years if nothing is done.

Similarly, an estimated 32 miles of state and county roadways could be inundated by sea level rise, blocking access to 40% of county parks. And 36% of park facilities like restrooms, parking lots and picnic shelters could be in jeopardy in the next 30 years — or even sooner if there are high tides or storm surges, the study says.

Royal Kahana Maui condoss
Public access to the beach at Kahana Beach is closed due to coastal erosion. Ludwig Laab/Civil Beat/2022

The study ranked whether each beach park had a “low,” “medium” or “high” potential to adapt to sea level rise and what, if anything, can be done to protect them — ranging from working with county and state governments to move nearby roadways inland to restoring sand dunes to buying nearby land and moving parks mauka. In a few cases, because of the beach parks’ locations, the only path forward might be abandoning the parks while still ensuring residents can access the shoreline, a right that’s been ingrained in Hawaii’s laws for generations.

At places like Puamana Park or Ukumehame Beach Park, for example, preserving beaches is dependent on moving roads away from the shoreline that are currently projected to one day be underwater. At Baldwin and Kanaha, on the other hand, protecting beach parks might look like restoring sand dunes or wetlands to shield against high waves and erosion, while also preserving habitats for native plants and animals.

“We’re not dealing with pavilions and trees falling into the ocean, but we’re saying that that is going to happen over the next decade,” Maydan said. “How do we move our assets mauka? How do we preserve the use of this park for people?”

Federal infrastructure funds are already going to projects to help repair Hawaii’s roads and stave off the effects of climate change and coastal erosion. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2022

Maydan said the study is still ongoing. Using their recent findings, the county plans to identify which beaches fall under “code red” and create adaptation plans to protect them from immediate threats.

Another idea identified in the study: Continue working with the community and look at creating a citizen-science program that could tap residents to help monitor changes and threats to Maui’s beach parks.

“Engaging the community is so important, because these are all places that we all love and enjoy,” Maydan said. “This is a huge challenge but just by bringing minds and voices together, we’ll come up with good solutions.”

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation and the Fred Baldwin Memorial Foundation.

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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