State legislators haven’t been alone in their efforts to codify recommendations from the December 2017 Sea Level Rise Vulnerability and Adaptation Report (SLR report) prepared for the Hawaiʻi Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation Commission in accordance with Acts 83 and 32 of the 2014 and 2017 legislative sessions, respectively.
City and County of Honolulu Climate Change Commission members Charles Fletcher and Makena Coffman, both with the University of Hawai`i, last month introduced draft recommendations to the city for dealing with sea level rise. Not only do they factor in the SLR report, they also incorporate recent guidance issued by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on how to plan for development or infrastructure projects that have varying levels of risk tolerance.
Among other things, Fletcher’s and Coffman’s recommendations would require the city to do the following:
- Adjust Special Management Area boundaries to include all areas depicted in the SLR report’s maps showing the sea level rise exposure areas (SLR-XA) at increases of 3.2 feet and six feet.
- Prohibit public infrastructure within the 3.2-ft. SLR-XA “if not specifically designed to withstand sea level rise impacts.”
- Adopt six feet of sea level rise as the basis for planning on new development and infrastructure projects that would last into the second half of the century, or which “for any other reason are deemed to be development with low risk tolerance.”
- Adopt the exposure areas associated with rises in sea level for 3.2 and six feet as hazard overlays for planning under the city’s sustainable community development plans.
- Ensure that major transportation corridors that are vulnerable to the effects of a rise in sea level of 3.2 feet have the flexibility to remain viable, even if it rises by six feet.
After hearing from the public, including some division heads with the Department of Planning and Permitting, the commission committed at its May 8 meeting to ensuring that whatever guidance it gives the city is feasible.
DPP permits division chief Katia Balassiano testified that the city had neither the staff nor the funds to implement the recommendations, which she seemed to support in concept.
What’s more, she said, “We’re being pulled in different directions. Lots of priorities, lots of competing interests. [It’s] a balancing act.”
“Do you have recommendations for language that doesn’t put you in a corner?” Fletcher asked.
“It certainly does put us in a corner. Thank you for acknowledging that. … These issues have been brought to our attention on numerous occasions. We’re looking for assistance [and] may be able to address these issues sooner rather than later,” she replied, adding that she would try to come up with alternative language.
“I don’t want to be diluting the good work you’ve done, but I’m a little cautions about making promises or raising expectations [and] getting into legal liability that may result from this particular language,” she said.
Fletcher stressed that the commission did not want to create an unfunded mandate.
“This is a revolutionary and inconvenient set of regulations,” he added.
Given that climate change effects are occurring and will continue, Balassiano suggested that government agencies “don’t really have a choice” but to deal with them.
The Sierra Club, Hawai`i Chapter’s Dave Raney said he thought the draft guidance document Fletcher and Coffman presented was excellent. “It takes you from the vague thing of, ‘We should be considering sea level rise’ … down to the TMK [tax map key]” level, he said.
Tetra Tech’s Kitty Courtney, who was instrumental in the creation of the SLR report, also supported the kinds of recommendations that had been drafted. Given the huge amount of work and resources involved in implementing them, she said, “There might be a way to think about phasing, beginning with the next sustainable communities plan update.” As reported in last month’s issue of Environment Hawai`i, Tetra Tech is working with Sea Grant on preparing a white paper for the DPP on how to address sea level rise in its upcoming update of the Primary Urban Center Community Development Plan, which covers the island’s urban core.
“We can’t just do this all everywhere, all at once. … [Tackling the plans] one by one. I think that would be helpful,” she said.
So it may be awhile before the plans for the entire island are updated to address sea level rise effects. The DPP’s transit-oriented development division, which focuses on urbanization around the Honolulu rail project, would also have some major catching up to do if Fletcher’s and Coffman’s recommendations were adopted unamended.
Like Balassiano, division administrator Harrison Rue seemed open to the kinds of things they had proposed. ”It’s what we asked you for. Thank you,” he said, before admitting that seeing the recommendation to incorporate flexibility in developments so that they can adapt to a 6-ft. rise in sea level by the second half of the century “was a jaw-dropping moment.”
He said he was going to put the recommendations on his sub-cabinet’s next agenda.
“We have started using the 3.2 figure in thinking of infrastructure, as well as specific project planning,” he added.
When it comes to the city’s impending multi-billion-dollar rail system, which will connect Kapolei to Waikiki, representatives from the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transit (HART) acknowledged that portions of the line fall within the exposure areas identified in the SLR report.
But, basically, it’s too late to reroute anything, said Ryan Tam, HART’s assistant deputy director of planning. In December 2006, the city council picked its preferred alternative and in February 2007, it selected the route for the first 20 miles and completed an environmental impact statement in June 2010, he said.
“In December 2012, it signed a contract with the federal transit administration and got $1.55 billion. It locked us into what we’re doing now,” he said.
For those parts of the system that might be vulnerable to the effects of sea level rise, HART’s strategy is to have “public-private partners and design builders identify options for what potential solutions are, potentially raising station entrances, stairs and ramps. Currently, those features are not in the design,” he said. He added that those decisions will need to be made by the community when the time comes. “Is our community going to retreat or are we going to raise the roadways?” he asked.
He noted that HART has made an effort to keep stations, such as the one slated for Ala Moana, out of the flood zone.
“What do you mean by flood zone?” Fletcher asked.
“Flood zones as, I think, currently defined” by regulations, Tam replied.
To this, Fletcher pointed out that Congress has stood in the way of updating flood insurance maps so that they reflect anticipated effects of sea level rise.
Tam replied, “We are an agency of the city. We are bound by the regulations of the city. As this evolves, we’ll have to take appropriate measures at that time.”
When Fletcher asked Tam whether HART even had the ability to take into account sea level rise or any other kind of constantly evolving information, Tam replied that his agency’s approach has been to focus on existing regulations and requirements. That said, Tam added that his agency gives its contractors “whatever best information we have now.”
Fletcher noted that HART had considered a rise in sea level of only 2.33 ft. in planning for the system. Given Tam’s statement that the rail would have a lifespan of 50-100 years, Fletcher asked him whether he was interested in looking at sea level rise information for the 50- to 100-year time frame.
“I can’t make any commitments … “ Tam replied.
He seemed to acknowledge, however, that whatever restrictions HART must operate under, there will need to be a comprehensive strategy to deal with what’s likely going to happen to low-lying, coastal, urban areas such as Kaka`ako.
“If streets in Kaka`ako have to be raised, we have to think about clearance between the top of the roadway and the bottom of the [rail] guideway. … It’s not just rail. It’s the whole community. What’s the strategy?” he asked.
Fletcher added, “If they fall into the sea level rise exposure area, it’s not just the [rail] stations, it’s access to the stations. … What good is raising an elevator or escalator if you can’t drive to the station?”
TOD division administrator Rue interjected that some of those questions would be better directed to his agency. “Their job is the rail. Our job is the improvements around the stations,” he said.
“I’m sort of wondering what will trigger the direct addressing of sea level rise. … At what point will you guys actually embrace this issue?” Fletcher asked.
Rue said his division has started addressing the issue “at least the day after I arrived four years ago. I asked HART, ‘What are you doing about the stations?’ We decided to focus on a few key projects in the Iwilei-Kapalama area, one of the areas partially inundated under your [sea level rise] viewer, as well as Pearlridge. We’re looking at riverine flooding in Waipahu and Kapalama. We don’t have the solutions now. Should we elevate, should we walk away?”
Discussion of the draft recommendations continued at a subsequent meeting later in the month, but no decisions have yet been made on them.
— Teresa Dawson