As intensifying coastal erosion and sea level rise threaten to wash North Shore homes into the ocean, a group of local residents, scientists, nonprofit leaders and lawmakers has released a new plan to address the situation both now and in the decades to come.

That road map, from the North Shore Coastal Resilience Working Group, comes as more swathes of sandy beach along the famed coast disappear, and some of the local, desperate homeowners have resorted to throwing illegal tarps, sand bags and even concrete barriers in the path of encroaching waves.

“What we have now is unmanaged retreat. It’s absolute chaos,” Pupukea resident Denise Antolini, a member of the hui, said at a press conference in Haleiwa on Monday.

At Rocky Point on Oahu's North Shore a house sits on the beach after recently collapsing and sliding off the eroded sandy bluff where it was built, Tuesday, March 1, 2022. (Ronen Zilberman photo Civil Beat)
A house sits on the beach At Rocky Point on Oahu’s North Shore after collapsing in March 2022 and sliding off the eroded sandy bluff where it was built. Ronen Zilberman/Civil Beat/2022

“Currently the situation is alarming, and homeowners don’t like it either. Step-by-step, we need to move toward solutions that the community is involved in supporting,” she added.

Antolini was among a half dozen or so North Shore residents that joined specialists from the University of Hawaii’s Sea Grant program, the local Surfrider Foundation chapter, the Honolulu-based engineering firm SSFM and others at six meetings over the past two years, pursuing a better, more comprehensive approach to the area’s growing erosion and flooding woes, made only worse by climate change.

Among the working group’s six main recommendations is a call for better guidelines – and limitations – on what emergency steps parties can take to respond to shoreline erosion. The group also calls for more robust enforcement against the “unauthorized materials” often deployed in those efforts.

The three North Shore areas hardest hit so far by the accelerating erosion are Rocky Point extending to Sunset Beach, Laniakea extending to Chuns, and Mokuleia, according to the group.

Its members also call for a statewide managed retreat program to eventually move private dwellings and public infrastructure away from the encroaching waters in an orderly fashion.

There’s already been some discussion on the state and county levels of how managed retreat in Hawaii would work – and how that process would be financed, said Dolan Eversole, a coastal processes specialist at UH Sea Grant.

“It needs to be equitable and it needs to be community-driven,” Eversole said Monday. “This isn’t something … where the government’s going to come in and just buy properties, unless the community at large is going to support that.”

Meanwhile, lawmakers have only started discussing in recent years how to tackle the issue of managed retreat, said state Sen. Gil Riviere, who represents Oahu’s coastal areas from Kaena Point to Kaneohe.

Homes along Sunset Beach with foundation on makai side with damage. Today's waves were relatively calm as we approach another cycle of large winter surf. in the coming months.
Homes along Sunset Beach have suffered severe foundation damage amid the erosion and heavy surf. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Eventually, managed retreat will become a necessity along Oahu’s coastline, Eversole and others at the briefing Monday said. Exactly when isn’t clear, and the timeline would also vary at different parts of the island, Eversole added.

“We have to learn to move with the water if we hope to maintain beaches for generations to come,” said Brad Romine, another UH Sea Grant specialist. “The challenge lies in doing this in a fair and affordable manner for all.”

The working group also recommends steps in the near term that might slow the pace of the erosion somewhat, including a plan to preserve and manage the sand dunes that help keep beaches intact. Such a plan might involve building walkways over the dunes, so that they’re not trampled upon, while still keeping beaches accessible to the public, Eversole said.

Such dune and beach management plans are “desperately needed” in Hawaii, he added.

Some 73% of beaches along the North Shore are undergoing “chronic erosion” and 33% of the beachfront properties there are now within 20 feet of the shoreline, said Lauren Blickley, Surfrider Foundation Hawaii’s regional manager.

Added Romine: “Beaches exist in a delicate balance between wave energy, sand supply and water level. Even a modest change in one of these factors can lead to coastal erosion.”

Members of the North Shore group lamented what they described as local officials’ “reactionary” responses to the growing problems — but they also described the state’s Department of Land and Natural Resources as overwhelmed, understaffed and in need of more resources to better address the situation there.

In a statement Monday, DLNR First Deputy Robert Masuda said that the agency’s Office of Conservation and Coastal Lands needed additional support and funding.

“With more than 700 miles of coastline in Hawaii, and increasing sea level rise and erosion issues, developing strategies to manage our coastal future needs significant resources,” Masuda said.

Now, the goal for Blickley, Romine and others in the working group is for local lawmakers to take up the recommendations in their multi-phase report, rather than just putting it on the shelf.

Antolini, meanwhile, said that moving forward the group aims to encourage more of the North Shore community to participate in how to respond to the growing threats.

“We’re at the forefront of the problem and we should be at the forefront of the solution,” 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.

Read the working group’s “Adaptive Coastal Management Recommendations, Actions and Strategies” report here:

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