Kailua Beach: Going ... Gone?

Ron Mizutani
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Wednesday - December 10, 2008
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Sand grabbers are failing to do that at Kailua Beach

There was a time when jumping off the bridge near Buzz’s Original Steak House in Kailua was all the rage. The thrill of splashing a passing car from your best cannonball was like a rite of passage.

Sadly, those days are gone. Tons of sand now fills the area and on a “good day” the water is ankle deep. The clogged waterway has put a pause on new memories at the bridge.

“Most of that sand should be back in the bay,” says a concerned Chip Fletcher, a University of Hawaii professor and chair of the university’s Department of Geology and Geophysics. “The erosion at Kailua Beach is either natural or human manipulation of sand budgets, and the obvious place to start is at the mouth of Kaelepulu Stream.”

Kailua Beach is the talk of the town, but the buzz has little to do with its beauty. What was voted America’s No. 1 beach in 1998 is now home to one of the most remarkable displays of erosion in Hawaii. In the words of one Windward Oahu resident, “Kailua Beach is going, going and may someday be gone.”


Fletcher believes years of sand dredging at the mouth of Kaelepulu Stream have caused a major deficiency in the bay.

“In the past I said the erosion at Kailua might be due to a rise in the sea level, but I no longer think that way,” says Fletcher. “Our tide gauges show global warming-induced sea-level rise has not hit Hawaii yet.”

If you haven’t visited the white sandy beach in the last few years, you will be in for unpleasant surprise. Many ironwood trees that lace the two-mile stretch of beach are now hanging by roots. Last year the city even cut several of them as a precautionary measure, including a 60-foot tree that hovered near the shoreline.

“Because of the serious erosion that’s taken place, and how quickly it’s taken place, we thought the best thing would be to reduce the height, at least for now, to keep it from toppling it over,” says Stanley Oka, the city’s urban forestry administrator.

More evidence of beach erosion surfaced in January when the lifeguard tower was relocated. And near the boat ramp, cement blocks and rusting rebar are exposed. The blocks were installed in the 1980s to serve as sand grabbers. Fletcher says city and state officials agree there is an urgent need to find solutions.

“But until someone tests the sand from Kaelepulu for pollutants the sand can’t be put into the bay because of potential contamination,” says Fletcher. “Yet nature does it every time there is a storm. Water and sand blast right back into the ocean. Nature can send pollutants back into the ocean, but the city can’t.”

It happened during November’s heavy rain when storm runoff and sand emptied into the bay. City crews eventually bulldozed sand to clear the mouth of the stream, but instead of releasing it back into the ocean the sand was pushed on top of man-created sand dunes.

“I hope the recent strong northerly winds pushed some of that back to shore,” says Fletcher who recalls similar conditions in 1998. “Those winds brought in so much sand back then the entire boat ramp was covered.”

In the meantime, the city and the state Departments of Health and Land and Natural Resources are trying to reach an agreement that will allow sand dredged out of the stream to be used on the beach.

“Keep your fingers crossed,” says Fletcher.

Many are with hopes of making more memories at the bridge.

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