Waikiki Beach Erosion Solution: Dump Tons of Sand on a Reef?

Waikiki beach erosion, something the city has been dealing with for over a hundred years, has gotten worse in recent years due to climate change. The iconic stretch of sand known for its prismatic blue waters, world-class surfing waves, and dramatic views of Diamond Head was once a wetland whose sandy beach was described as being “seasonal.” Waikiki also encompassed some of O’ahu’s richest farmland, which enterprising industrialists condemned as a “health hazard” and filled in with limestone. I imagine pre-contact Waikiki as being very similar to the shores of the Florida Everglades, but with fewer mosquitos (mosquitoes, like syphilis and capitalism, were European imports). Human impacts over the past century include dredging channels in coral reef, the construction of sea walls, the collapse of sea walls, and climate change, which have all contributed to the loss of habitable coast and habitat for animals. In 2012 and more recently in 2021, the state’s solution to rising seas was to float a barge beyond the surf break known as Queens, suck up sand from the seafloor like a vacuum cleaner, and then deposit this sand on the beach. The solution (like any solution to address the impacts of climate change that doesn’t address the cause) has been largely futile, with the most recent efforts completed just at the start of May already eroded by high tides and high swells.

Could it get any worse? It can.

A new, Waikiki beach improvement plan proposes creating a beach where historically there has been none, constructing groins where prior groin construction appears to have failed, and dumping tons of sand (4,000 to 6,000 truckloads to be exact) on a significantly stressed coral reef habitat where endangered monk seals and sea turtles forage for food. In total, the project would require either the burial or relocation of 28 coral colonies. You can read all about it in a 1000-plus page environmental impact report prepared by Sea Engineering, Inc. (the same company that would complete the project if it were to be approved). While I think the past sand replenishment projects largely futile and Sisyphean, I can understand why the state might want to implement these measures as a temporary solution. What I can’t understand is the new and more expensive plan to construct groins in front of the Sheraton Hotel, creating a new beach where there has been no beach for over a hundred years, all of this to the detriment of a coral reef where endangered species forage for food.

Today Waikiki Beach is a large crescent shaped bay fronted by resorts and hotels. You cannot walk the entirety of Waikiki beach on the sand. Most iconic images of the beach conveniently crop out the sea wall that splits the crescent-shaped bay into two sections. Right in the middle of the crescent, where the Sheraton hotel stands, you’ll find no sandy beach, but a seawall, with a path that provides walkers with discontinuous beach access along the wall. The presence of no sandy beach means that the waters in this section of Waikiki are relatively free of humans (that is, swimmers, surfers, and people bobbing in inner tubes, floating lounge chairs, and other abominations). According to Sea Engineering, Inc.’s environmental impact report, “The proposed action in the Halekūlani beach sector [the section with the sea wall] will create approximately 3.8 acres of new dry beach area. Marine habitat in this area consists of a relatively barren reef flat.” I wouldn’t call an area where sea turtles actively graze and where monk seals have also been spotted a “relatively barren reef flat.” And while the report claims that “the groins will provide bare, stable surfaces for recruitment of corals, algae, and other invertebrates,” the creation of a beach where, potentially hundreds of swimmers will be in the water on a daily basis hardly makes this a marine sanctuary. At present, the seawall prevents most swimmers from accessing the water, allowing animals to freely forage in this section of the reef.

In order to understand why there’s a sea wall in the area in question, you need to go back to the early 1900s. In 1908, a hydraulic dredge cut a channel through the reef right in front of where the Halekulani now stands, and in 1913, this channel was deepened and widened. We know now that coral reefs are not only important for their ecological diversity, but because they also protect the shore from erosion. After the 1913 dredging operation, the beach in front of Fort DeRussy and the beaches in front of Halekulani began to erode. According to the environmental impact report, after the channel was created, property owners lost “ten to thirty feet of their ocean frontage. Seawalls were constructed to prevent the existing homes from being lost. The seawalls still exist today.” Other groins were constructed in the past, and these groins “are largely submerged and ineffective.” Why were these groins ineffective? The environmental impact statement doesn’t say. What could we learn from those failures, given that we want to do a similar project today? 

Waikiki beach erosion (along with hotter summers, stronger hurricanes, wildfires and droughts in the American west and elsewhere, as well as glacial melt, to name a few examples) offers a palpable testament and direct evidence of the ways we are changing and damaging our planet. It cannot be denied that the parts of Waikiki’s coast that have sandy beach suffer from erosion due to climate change, but it also cannot be denied that there wasn’t much beach to begin with. In 1927, the Royal Hawaiian groin was constructed to preserve an expanded beach, largely for the enjoyment of tourists and for economic benefit of developers.

Sea levels are rising, but coral reefs (which protect the shore from erosion) are also stressed and dying due to increased ocean temperatures and ocean acidification. The impact of these stresses can be seen dramatically on Waikiki beach. On days when the summer swells bring bigger waves to the south shore, combined with record high tide events known as “king tides,” you can literally watch the beach disappear before your eyes as the sheer energy of the water hitting the shore drags sand out into the sea. If you look down at the reef in the bay with a snorkel and goggles, the reef is obviously dying, struggling to do its job.

Heating oceans have stressed the nearshore coral of O’ahu. A recent report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration indicates that the main Hawaiian islands experienced “back-to-back severe coral bleaching in 2014 and 2015.” (I remember visiting O’ahu years ago and being mesmerized by the vibrant living reef I observed while snorkeling at Hanauma Bay. Today the reef is rotting, a necrotizing algae-covered corpse in reef-shaped form. But, it’s still a reef. Fish go there to eat. Monk seals have been spotted feeding there. And sea turtles use these reefs as foraging grounds). Some of the coral has died, but not all. It is also known that reefs can recover, and there are many excellent projects looking at ways that coral reefs might be restored if only we can stop pumping carbon into the atmosphere. NOAA reports that the coral reefs of O’ahu are in “fair” condition. By “fair” NOAA means that coral are “impaired,” fish have been “very” impacted with “reef fish populations…depleted.” NOAA reports that “temperature stress and ocean acidification are moderately impacting the islands.” The only upside of the entire report is the fact that direct human impact is not harming the reef. “Human connections are good, which means communities have awareness about the reefs and engage in behaviors that protect reef ecosystems.” Maybe. Until now. If Sea Engineering, Inc.’s proposed project buries the reef, it will be because the public and the government permitted it.

Last Thursday, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported that the public has until July 23 to submit comments about Sea Engineering Inc.’s recently-released environmental impact statement. The report, by Sea Engineering, Inc. (the same company that will complete this project if it is approved to move forward) recommends a $12 million plan to construct a series of groins that would allow developers to create an artificial beach in front of the Sheraton Hotel, the Halekulani, and Outrigger hotels. Gone would be the seawall in front of the Sheraton that overlooks a reef where I’ve seen turtles and other sea creatures foraging for food. In fact, the plan seems to propose dumping tons of sand on that very reef.

An environmental impact statement completed by the very contractor that stands to benefit from the project if the project in question is approved sounds like an egregious conflict of interest (it’s like asking McDonald’s to write an impact statement on the restaurant’s effect on the well-being of cows). Why hasn’t the government hired an independent party to conduct the environmental impact statement? This seems to reflect deep irresponsibility on the part of our elected officials when it comes to offering the public a good understanding of the real effects a given project might have on sensitive cultural, ecological, environmental, and recreational areas.

I read the environmental impact statement with deep interest, and deep concern. Climate change affects us all, but I have a personal stake in this project because I consider the surf breaks of Waikiki beach to be my home surf spots, particularly the break known as Populars which directly fronts the proposed project site in front of the Sheraton hotel. I also have gotten to know some of the turtles and sea life that resides in these reefs, and feel personally responsible for their well-being. I understand that most people won’t have time to read the whole report, so below you’ll find some of my greatest concerns.

Waikiki Beach Improvement Plan: A Closer Reading of the Environmental Impact Statement

Diamond Head Littoral Zone. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood. Original Art.
Diamond Head Littoral Zone. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood

Bear with me here. The environmental impact statement completed by Sea Engineering, Inc. is a thousand-plus page-long document and I put it upon myself to read it in its entirety. It raises far more questions than answers. It also is a fascinating delve into the history of Waikiki beach. It’s hardly a casual read, but if you have grit and a little patience (you know, like the kind of grit required to read Chaucer in the Middle English), it really is a slow-moving train wreck kind of thriller of environmental devastation, human hubris, and example of the many ways in which we rationalize our own folly.

The opening sentence of the report took a defensive posture from the start, hardly the language of the unbiased: “Waikiki is a predominantly engineered shoreline.” (And yes, engineered it is, but as ProPublica recently reported, much of the “engineering” involves seawalls, which “are the primary cause of coastal erosion.”) Seawall construction in Waikiki beach dates back to 1890. But ProPublica notes that sea walls protect property “at the expense of the environment and public shoreline access.” In 1917, the construction of sea walls on Waikiki’s shore were outlawed. Some, but not all, of the sea walls in Waikiki date to before the construction moratorium. For example, sea walls were constructed on the site of the future Sheraton hotel in 1913, before they were outlawed. However, the writers of the report do not know why sea walls were permitted after the moratorium was passed, and why the authorities permitted the upkeep of the sea walls currently in place. ProPublica reports that the loss of beaches largely due to these sea walls means the loss of critical habitat for endangered animals, including monk seals.

Given that sea walls have existed on this beach for over a hundred years, why do this project now?

The most obvious reason to me seems to be that the sea wall in that area is in gross disrepair. The benefits of the project seem to be aesthetic and touristic: the creation of a continuous Waikiki beach that the hotels can then cover with rental chairs. The report doesn’t mention any commitment by the hotels to repair their own damaged sea walls, which the report notes, are private property.

So, what are the downsides of the project? The Star-Advertiser reports that “critics fear the project could degrade Waikiki’s legendary surf, harm reef habitat for fish and foraging areas for endangered monk seals and green sea turtles, and destroy the graceful, haunting ambiance at its heart, where ancient coconut trees mark the sites where Hawaiian chiefs once lived and freshwater streams and springs entered the sea.” So of course, I read the section of the environmental impact report outlining “Potential Adverse Impacts” with much interest.

My concerns only grew deeper as I read on. The negative impacts of the project are presented as being only temporary, with no permanent negative impacts suggested. Yet sand will literally be dumped on a reef currently used by sea turtles and other marine species for foraging. I have personally observed this reef and see turtles foraging there; during the pandemic I observed sting rays near it; I surf this beach nearly every single day. The report explicitly states that 28 coral colonies will be buried and that the placement of the boulders and sand will “result in some loss of benthic organisms, including corals.”

Not only will the creation of the groins result in sand being dumped on a highly stressed coral reef, creating a beach where there historically was none, but I also have deep doubts about whether these new and expensive “beaches” will last for long. A recent months-long Waikiki beach improvement plan involved dredging (using a submersible slurry pump, to be precise; a slurry pump being preferable to other sand retrieval options because the pump can be more accurately positioned around the hard coral reef in the area, preventing damage to the reef, I hope…) and pumping sand out between the surf breaks of Canoes and Queens break. For months, the sand was piled into a big pyramid on the easternmost side of Kuhio Beach. The sand was eventually spread out over Waikiki Beach, widening the beach temporarily. The project was loud, unsightly, and disrupted surfing at both Queens and Canoes, and limited access to the beach itself for days. My fin hit the big pipe channeling sand to the beach a few times when I surfed at Queens. The project’s unfolding is the stuff of tragicomedy as I watched weeks of human endeavor literally get washed away by the sea. Within a couple of weeks, a king tide, combined with a big south swell literally erased feet of the newly-widened beach. Just yesterday, water covered sections of the beach in its entirety. You could literally see a “cliff” of about one to two feet in the sand where the water had eaten away the shore.

Another concern expressed by critics is that the project will cause refraction of waves off the new beach, affecting Waikiki’s famous and beautiful surf breaks.

Will the proposed new project affect the waves and surf breaks of Waikiki Beach? The report initially says the work will not impact surf breaks, but I didn’t believe it, and was right to distrust the initial claim. Buried in the 1000-page report is a more nuanced analysis of the impact of the project to surf breaks, one that deeply concerns me. The environmental impact report presents models of current wave formation in Waikiki, but doesn’t show the visual results for the models showing how the waves will break should the engineering project be approved. And you have to read deeper into the 1000-page report (page 188 to be exact) to read that Sea Engineering, Inc. admits that pumping sand from the seafloor does have an impact on the wave heights at Canoes, Queens, Courts, Bowls, and Kaisers. To be fair, the report suggests that the impacts in wave heights are in inches (sometimes making the waves a little bigger, sometimes a little smaller), but bathymetry and wave formation is incredibly complex, and the impact on wave height doesn’t tell us about the potential impact on wave shape, something which is of more concern to surfers. Recent projects have affected the way waves break at Canoes.

For example, regarding the Royal Hawaiian Groin Replacement project, which was completed recently, the report notably doesn’t mention any adverse effects from that project, but the Star-Advertiser reports that critics have complained that “sand from past nourishment projects has drifted into the surf zone and settled in and around Canoes, so that its former fast, steep, right-breaking wave ‘no longer breaks the same,’ and ‘now the left is more like a windward O’ahu beach break’ rather than the clean, long, peeling waves Waikiki is prized for.” I have seen these impacts myself. I agree.

So what is it? In the section on waves, the environmental impact report says there will be no impact on surf breaks, but deeper in the report, we learn that the work will indeed have an impact. This kind of contradictory messaging does not inspire trust.

I have deep concerns that this project will further affect the offshore reefs that create Waikiki’s prized surf breaks, and I’m deeply concerned about how this project will affect the reefs directly in front of the Sheraton hotel, especially Populars, the surf break I frequent.

The good news is that this project cannot move further without federal approval, particularly approval under the Clean Water Act. Other federal acts may also be affected, including the Endangered Species Act, the Archeological and Historic Preservation Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, among others. These approvals may be required on top of local state approvals.

Improving Tourist Beaches at What Cost?

When the state plans to take action that could potentially destroy natural resources critical to endangered animals, we need to ask ourselves who stands to benefit. Whom does this project primarily serve? Does it serve the people of Hawai’i and protect our natural resources, or does it protect a few coastal hotels and the tourist economy, an economy which has proven to be fragile in the era of COVID-19, and an economy that the local people have expressed that they want to rely on less? Notably, the beaches which are more heavily used by locals will not be served at all by the project.

While it is true that Waikiki Beach has been largely engineered in the past, this doesn’t mean that this is the right course of action going forward. In fact, engineering of the past doesn’t seem to have served the beach well at all (if you consider the beach loss resulting from the dredging of the coral reef in the Halekulani channel alone). Military blasted the coral at Hanauma Bay to lay a communications cable that connected Hawai’i to the mainland, but we wouldn’t advocate for the blasting of reefs today, and I don’t think we should advocate for the burying of reefs under tons of imported sand, potentially destroying foraging sites for endangered animals. And for what? So the Sheraton can put out more lounge chairs for its patrons?  

What are the alternatives to this project? Of course, the only real alternative is for us to stop pumping carbon into the atmosphere and to find effective carbon sequestration. I don’t see that happening any time soon on a large scale. The current solutions are risky, myopic, and unsightly. Sea Engineering, Inc’s report itself admits that its own extreme engineering solutions (involving a total of 2,400 days of construction over a 50-year period) will only protect the beach for a mere 50 years. Worse, we don’t even know how much this project will cost: “The estimated costs for construction for the proposed beach improvement and maintenance actions has yet to be confirmed.”

The obvious alternative is to stop pumping carbon into the air.

Sea Engineering, Inc’s report suggests alternative courses of action given our situation. These alternatives include no action, managed retreat, or beach maintenance without stabilizing structures.

Our Denial of the Inevitable Loss of Waikiki Beach

Of course, sea levels will continue to rise, threatening Waikiki’s beaches, hotels, and other structures unless we find a way to stop and reverse carbon atmospheric levels. According to Sea Engineering, Inc’s environmental impact report, we stand to lose as much as 49.5% of the world’s beaches by the end of this century if the sea levels rise 3.2 feet under NOAA’s intermediate scenario projections for 2060 in Hawai’I (if we continue pumping carbon into the air “business as usual” the sea level rise is projected to be over 8 feet), we could lose $12.9 billion in land and buildings, including 3,800 structures flooded, resulting in the displacement of 13,000 residents.

My opinion is that no new beach should be created where there currently is none—period.

We don’t want to face the painful and difficult facts. Even if we manage to reverse course on climate change, we will likely see sea level rise in Waikiki for centuries. Even Sea Engineering, Inc’s report notes the following: “managed retreat should be part of the community development process.” What is managed retreat? It means relocating the resorts inland. It means abandoning buildings and covering their foundations with sand, forming a new beach. It means giving up on our idea of Waikiki beach as it exists now, which will be lost anyway by the end of the century, even with this multi-million dollar project. It means tearing down the resorts, and putting sand in their foundations, sand where the new beach will be. Rather than starting that difficult process, we’re choosing to bury reefs and build groins that won’t last the century.

This is frightening, but it is our reality. Like the start of COVID-19, we didn’t want to face reality, and hundreds of thousands died. Are we likewise in the same situation here in Hawai’i? Are we building groins and dredging sand in denial of the reality that the sea will rise and the beach will be lost? The hotels have a vested interest in constant sand replenishment. Under the law, everything under the high water mark during high tide belongs to the state. Without these projects, the hotels risk losing their titles. I can’t help but feel like cosmic justice is being served. Nature will eventually reclaim land where humans once dumped land on wetland and farmland to destroy nature.

Perhaps we need to face the reality that the coastline as we know it will never be the same again. And as long as climate change continues, the water will get hotter, the coral will continue to die. We need to face the reality that we may not be able to enjoy the protective effects of our coral reefs forever.

I lean towards solutions that involve the least permanent environmental impact, including small scale beach restoration and beach nourishment that doesn’t involve the construction of added structures and that doesn’t involve dumping sand in places where there traditionally hasn’t been sand to begin with, especially on coral reefs. These temporary and costly solutions can preserve the beach, while we plan for managed retreat, the only real long-term solution. A project involving public money to ultimately protect a private sea wall, while potentially putting surf breaks, reefs, and marine animals at risk sounds wrong-minded to me.

Finally, I am also sure that conflicts of interest make it impossible for Sea Engineering, Inc’s report to adequately or honestly convey to the public the real cost of the project in terms of environmental costs, recreational costs, and more. Until a truly independent analysis is performed (by universities, researchers, and truly independent stakeholders) that takes into account the risk to endangered species, the risk to bathymetry (surf breaks), and the risk to the nearshore coral reefs, this project should not be approved.

The public has until July 23 to comment. The Star-Advertiser notes that comments should be e-mailed to: [email protected]

Click here to join.

About the Writer

Janice Greenwood is a writer, surfer, and poet. She holds an M.F.A. in poetry and creative writing from Columbia University.