(This article has been corrected to reflect that Engineering with Nature is a program of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, not FEMA.)
As Environment Hawai‘i reported in April, sea level rise threatens to draw sewage from cesspools and other on-site disposal systems into coastal waters. And as we report in this month’s cover story, rising seas may also leach hazardous chemical contaminants into the ocean and foster the underground proliferation of petroleum-derived explosive and noxious gases.
Heading off these and other harmful effects of sea level rise will likely cost billions of dollars, whatever types of mitigation are ultimately employed. And as a recent proposal regarding small-scale beach restoration projects showed (see our Board Talk column in this issue), gaining consensus on the best path forward won’t be easy.
Still, government agencies, the Legislature, non-profit organizations, and others are forging ahead with adaptation efforts. We highlight just a few of them below:
“If we took a traditional approach … we’d be looking at an estimated $30 billion to relocate or elevate state roads and bridges, address impacts to airports, and protect the state’s commercial harbor facilities,” Edward Sniffen, Department of Transportation (DOT) deputy director for highways, testified before Congress in May.
The state cannot afford to do that, even if it had places to move all of its vulnerable facilities and infrastructure to. Still, DOT officials have recently suggested that shoring up or otherwise protecting just the harbors and airports may cost at least $17 billion.
Sniffen estimated a few years ago that mitigating sea level rise effects on the state’s highway system might cost some $15 billion. However, the Highways Division’s Climate Resilience Action Plan, released in May, does not include any cost estimates.
At last month’s meeting of the Hawai‘i Climate Commission, DOT deputy director Lynn Araki-Regan said modifications to Honolulu Harbor to manage the effects of sea level rise are estimated to cost between $1 billion and $3 billion.
She said the department is seeking funding for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to conduct a feasibility study to determine if locks and dams installed at the harbor’s two entrance channels would be effective in controlling water levels while still allowing ships to traverse between the harbor and the ocean.
That study alone is expected to cost $3 million, with the state paying for half of it. She also said it would take three years to complete.
“A water control system at Honolulu Harbor would not only protect the port where the majority of commercial goods from toilet paper to Spam enter the state, it could potentially protect surrounding neighborhoods and provide insight into the use of such systems to protect seaside populations and assets. Honolulu Harbor also serves as a distribution point for goods transported to Guam, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, American Samoa, and the Compact of Free Association nations,” Sniffen stated in his congressional testimony.
For the smaller outer-island harbors, which can’t accommodate dam structures, the DOT is looking at replacing pile-supported piers with bulkhead piers, which would involve the installation of sheet piles along pier faces. The estimated cost for those modifications is $8 billion, Araki-Regan said.
As for the 15 airports managed by the DOT, the agency has determined that 10 of them, including Honolulu’s Daniel K. Inouye airport, would be vulnerable to flooding as a result of sea level rise. Relocation and elevation are both being considered as options, as is seawall or revetment construction.
Based on construction costs of current projects, the DOT estimates it will need $8 billion to address anticipated sea level rise at the state’s airports, Sniffen said.
One potentially significant source of funding for the kinds of flood mitigation projects the DOT is considering is the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities program, or BRIC for short.
In fiscal year 2020, up to $33.6 million ($600,000 per applicant) was made available to states, the District of Columbia, and U.S.territories. According to Luke Meyers, administrator for the Hawai‘i Emergency Management Agency, all three of Hawai‘i’s applications for this funding were granted.
Two of the applications were made by the City and County of Honolulu’s Office of Climate Change, Sustainability, and Resilience: $375,000 for a grid and resilient power system at Kaimuki Middle School and $150,000 for project scoping options for sea level rise. The third grant of $75,000 was to the Honolulu Board of Water Supply for an emergency power master plan.
FEMA also offered $450 million ($50 million per applicant) in BRIC grants for mitigation and management costs through a national competition. None of the 13 projects Hawai‘i applicants proposed for consideration was funded.
Among the applicants from Hawai‘i were Honolulu’s Office of Climate Change, Sustainability, and Resilience, which sought $20 million for a Ko‘olauloa
resilience hub and community safe room; the Department of Defense, which sought $50 million to modernize its emergencyoperations center (EOC); and the state Energy Office, which sought $6 million for microgrids.
Meyers said that in the national grant competition, which received more than 900 submissions, all of Hawai‘i’s applications automatically lost 15 technical points out of 100 because neither the state nor the counties participate in a federally accredited Building Code Effectiveness Grading Schedule.
None of Hawai‘i’s projects even made the top 100. Meyers noted that the program’s requirement that projects have a 25 percent cost-share match is a major obstacle for smaller groups, communities, and states.
Only ten states received funding and all of it went to large-scale, traditional flood-control infrastructure projects.
“Flood infrastructure is driving a lot of these conversations,” Meyers told the Hawai‘i Climate Commission last month, adding that his office is planning to hire a mitigation strategist.
Despite losing out on BRIC funding, Meyers’ presentation to the commission suggested that some of the projects may still get federal funding through other channels.
He noted that Rep. Ed Case’s office submitted a request for community project funding for three microgrids for the Hawai‘i State Energy Office, to the tune of $7.9 million, in addition to $1 million for hardening and modernization of the state EOC, and $330,000 for a Hawai‘i Safe Home Hurricane Retrofit Program.
Sen. Brian Schatz’s office has also submitted direct funding requests for six projects, including $1 million for the same EOC project, $3 million for a home hurricane retrofit program, and $300,000 for a master drainage plan for the areas of Mapunapuna and Kalihi.
Finally, Meyers noted that the nearly $10 million in disaster related funding received for volcanic and severe weather incidents in 2016 and 2018 have helped pay for a number of climate change mitigation-related measures, including an energy and critical infrastructure vulnerability and resiliency assessment and an analysis of shoreline and riparian setbacks in Hawai‘i County.
While traditional flood-control projects won all of FEMA’s competitive BRIC funding this year, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is open to considering nature-based solutions to flooding. Since 2010, it’s had an Engineering with Nature program that collaborates with other Corps teams on various projects.
At the Honolulu Climate Commission’s June meeting, Todd Bridges, the Engineering with Nature program’s national lead, highlighted the need for more nature-based solutions. He noted the findings published last December in the journal Nature, that human-made mass now exceeds all living biomass on earth.
“We’ve used a lot of concrete, rock aggregate, sand, brick, and asphalt to construct this infrastructure,” he said. Referring to the Nature article, he noted that the doubling time for human-made mass was 20 years, which “really challenges the whole notion of sustainability.”
When it comes to addressing the flooding threats posed by sea level rise and coastal storm surges, he said there are basically three options: shore- line hardening, retreat, or ad- vancement. That third option is where “natural” solutions might be employed — be they wetlands, mangroves, man-made sand islands, or reefs — to mitigate hazards and “buy time for adaptation,” he said.
Bridges extolled the value of coral reefs in flood mitigation, citing a Nature Sustainability article published this year on research by the USGS and University of California at Santa Cruz. It showed that for the island of O‘ahu alone, coral reefs annually provide hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of flood protection, roughly $10 million in benefits per kilometer of reef.
Department of Hawaiian Home Lands planner Nancy McPherson asked Bridges and the Hawai‘i-based Army Corps staff at the meeting for advice on what nature-based solutions could help with the flood risks some homestead areas are facing.
“Coastal erosion and inundation is meeting the flash flooding and our homesteaders are in the middle of that,” she said.
Brian Kamisato, director of regional business for the Army Corps at Fort Shafter, said his office is “a good place to start with this dialogue.”
“From where I sit, there’s opportunity here. We have some authorities. We perform work under civil works, whether flood risk management [or] ecosystem restoration. … If we can find partners — with cities or states or others — we can enter feasibility studies. … We can bring potentially some federal dollars to bear.”
At the Hawaiian Homes Commission’s July 20 meeting, McPherson reported that to address coastal erosion and inundation of homestead lands in south Moloka‘i, her office is investigating the benefits wetlands or other natural living shorelines might provide.
She noted that under current state and county policies, any kind of shoreline armoring would be “really, really difficult to achieve.”
“We’re looking at restoration of makaloa (a native sedge) … a lot of dune species like ‘aki‘aki grass and pohuehue (beach morning glory),” she said.
She noted that the shoreline along the homestead at Kapa‘akea is an artificial one created by the department, “so there’s going to be a lot of challenges employing nature-based solutions along that stretch. … Kamiloloa has a much better chance.
The department is planning to hold workshops across the state to develop resiliency plans to deal with the impacts of climate change, particularly with regard to the many cesspools on coastal homestead lands.
To help pave the way for more nature-based solutions, the state Legislature this year passed a resolution encouraging the Department of Land and Natural Resources to purchase reef insurance to help pay for enhancement projects that may help protect shorelines and coastal infrastructure.
DLNR director Suzanne Case supported the measure. In written testimony, she stated that the department’s Division of Aquatic Resources is partnering with communities, non-profit groups, researchers, and businesses to develop coral restoration techniques and hybrid reef structures to protect vulnerable coastlines and increase fish habitat.
“Reef insurance is a new concept that has been tested in Mexico where the government of Quintana Roo recently received an $850,000 insurance payout after hurricane Delta impacted the Cancun region in 2020. The Nature Conservancy recently completed a two-year feasibility assessment for reef insurance in Hawai‘i, and it appears there is interest and applicability in the islands. Further, the cost ofinsurance appears to be significantly less in Hawai‘i, potentially making it more attractive for coastal property owners and others who have a vested interest in keeping our reefs healthy and resilient,” she wrote.
She added, “[E]rosion and chronic flooding are predicted to increase as a result of sea-level rise. Beach erosion is already a significant and growing issue in Hawai‘i, with 70 percent of beaches experiencing erosion. Ongoing sand replenishment and proposed structural erosion controls are not only costly, they often have detrimental effects on marine life and coastal systems.”
The Nature Conservancy, Hawai‘i program also testified in support. The organization, which helped develop the reef insurance program in Mexico, noted that severe hurricanes can destroy 50 percent or more of live coral cover, “and the loss of just one meter of reef could result in a doubling of the cost of damage.”
“In 2018, Hawai‘i was threatened by two Category 3+ hurricanes and last July,
Category 1 Hurricane Douglas came within 30 miles of the state. As the risks to our reefs and coastal resources increase, so too does our need to develop new funding sources to protect and restore them. Reef insurance is a proven source of funding to repair reefs after a natural disaster,” the organization stated.
There are insurance companies interested in offering reef insurance for hurricanes and bleaching in Hawai‘i, it continued.
TNC has already mapped areas around the state where reefs are protecting important coastal infrastructure and local communities, as well as those reefs that are most vulnerable to severe bleaching.
“These are the regions where we should be investing in building reef resilience – increasing the reef’s ability to resist or recover from natural disasters. … Our study suggests that an investment of just $20,000 a year could lead to a payout of up to $1 million to repair a reef impacted by the storms we know are coming. It is a small price to pay for the peace of mind that comes from knowing we can repair the reefs that provide our food and livelihoods while protecting homes and businesses across the state,” it stated.
— Teresa Dawson