Failing seawall poses safety threat

Natural erosion mixed with a few manmade decisions has created a costly cocktail for the county to swallow if it wants to preserve an Eastside shoreline and valuable coastal property.

There is an urgent need to address a deteriorating and unpermitted seawall fronting Pono Kai Resort in Kapa‘a. It is expected to cost taxpayers more than $2 million to remedy, County Engineer Donald Fujimoto said yesterday.

“It’s one of those situations where you can allow the (ocean) currents to take the coastline or you can protect it for public access for fishing and recreational purposes,” he said. “Although we may lose the white sand beach, just having access is a huge value.”

After searching for a solution for more than a year, Fujimoto told the Kaua‘i County Council last week that the only feasible option is to build a new revetment behind the existing one.

This will entail ripping up a portion of the coastal path that the county completed last year. Due to space constraints created by an abutting private property, the path will likely be redesigned to run on top of the new seawall, Fujimoto said.

The seven-member legislative body, which will see some new faces starting Dec. 1, ultimately controls the project’s direction because it approves the funding.

The timeline and cost for the project remain uncertain until designs are approved, but Fujimoto offered some rough estimates.

Based on the cost of similar revetment work being done at Aliomanu, he said the county is hoping the new seawall will not exceed $2.5 million and be completed by early 2011.

The county hopes to finalize an environmental assessment by early next year, Fujimoto said. Then the county will pursue special management area and shoreline setback permits.

Council members Mel Rapozo and Shaylene Iseri-Carvalho said last year they cautioned the late Mayor Bryan Baptiste’s administration to wait until the revetment issue was resolved before constructing the next phase of the coastal path from Lihi Boat Ramp to Kealia.

“We’ve got to stop putting the cart before the horse,” Rapozo said yesterday. “It’s terrible management and terrible waste of taxpayer money simply to rush the administration’s agenda.”

Fujimoto estimated $50,000 to $100,000 of taxpayer money was spent on the 500-foot section of concrete path running parallel to the seawall.

It is not so much a matter of “I told you so” as it is an unfortunate reality that must be resolved, Rapozo said.

“The bike path is not a priority right now,” he said. “Preserving that beach is.”

In retrospect, Fujimoto said, aligning the path along the shoreline, as opposed to routing it by Kuhio Highway, remains the right decision because it preserves coastal access in perpetuity.

Fujimoto said the county was dealt two choices to rectify the issue: build a new seawall or agree to write a “blank check” for a sand replenishment project in front of the existing revetment.

Only the former was feasible, he said, because of the untold amount of sand that would be needed to stabilize the seawall and maintain it.

The county built the existing seawall in 1993 after Hurricane Iniki ravaged the island, but apparently failed to secure the required permits.

The state Department of Land and Natural Resources’ maintains a policy of not allowing shoreline hardening unless it serves a significant public purpose such as a road, Fujimoto said.

Agreeing to the sand replenishment project could have been a trade-off for an after-the-fact permit, he said.

Without the permits, the county has been unable to repair the existing rock revetment that continues to deteriorate from sinkholes caused by wave erosion.

“If it remains unchecked, the wall will fall … landward,” Fujimoto said.

The solution the engineer recommended to the council was reached with the help of disapproving DLNR officials, he said.

By building a new seawall behind the existing one, the matter shifts from a state-regulated conservation zone to a special management area under county jurisdiction.

“They’re indirectly allowing us to circumvent the law,” Fujimoto said. “The only reason they’re assisting us is because of the public purpose.”

State Office of Conservation and Coastal Lands Administrator Sam Lemmo said yesterday that he helped the county think out its options.

He said he presented three solutions: repair the structure, which would require obtaining conservation use permits; build a wall behind a wall, which would limit the state to a commentating agency; or abandon the seawall, which would commit the area to beach processes and require rerouting the bike path by Kuhio Highway or through the Pono Kai complex.

“We’re concerned people have access, but also for the health of our beaches,” Lemmo said. “These types of structures have been shown to cause negative impacts to our sandy beach areas.”

He said he advised the county that if it was considering repairing the existing seawall, he would like them to consider some beach restoration. He noted that his office does not determine the permits, just helps with the process.

After deciding on the direction, the county may have to acquire additional land from Pono Kai to complete the project, Fujimoto said.

A meeting last week with the Pono Kai Board of Directors was promising, he said.

“They’re receptive so far, but haven’t committed to anything,” Fujimoto said.

The engineer said he envisions the new seawall, should funding for it be approved, to resemble the existing revetment but with a somewhat more natural feel. He said the path over it could possibly be a boardwalk.

During the council meeting Wednesday at the Historic County Building, Council Chair Jay Furfaro said the state’s breakwaters and dredging of the nearby channel may have affected the seawall.

“We want to arrive at a reasonable benefit for both parties,” he said, indicating he would like some shared cost.

But Iseri-Carvalho said aerial photos show a break in the reef as a contributing cause of the seawall’s deterioration, adding that it could go with the next storm surge.

“We’re finally in a place that there appears to be some agreement,” she said.

Residents voiced their concerns over the issue and possible solutions.

“The public gets so skeptical of our government and the action that we don’t take,” said Glenn Mickens of Kapa‘a.

Kekaha resident Bruce Pleas said the county should repair the reef to stop the cause of the erosion at its source.

“We’re fighting a losing battle otherwise,” he said.

• Nathan Eagle, staff writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 224) or neagle@kauaipubco.com

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