Kauaʻi Climate Adaptation Plan Taking Shape

Photo: Coastal erosion at Pākalā Village
Coastal erosion at Pākalā Village, near Kekaha in West Kauaʻi. – Photo: Marie Williams

Even as a young teen growing up on the North Shore of Oʻahu, Marie Williams knew change was afoot in the area of Kamehameha Highway where she sometimes caught the bus to school.

“There’s a segment of the road in Hauʻula that’s built right on the shoreline,” she said. “From the bus stop on the ma kai side, I could see the ocean going under it, destabilizing the land and creating holes in the asphalt. Now I know that one result of global warming — climate change — is rising sea levels, which accelerates such coastal erosion.”

Today, Williams is the long-range planning division manager in Kauaʻi County’s Planning Department, overseeing the development of the Kauaʻi Climate Adaptation Plan (CAP) along with project consultant Raimi + Associates. Its goal is “to present a framework of actions to ensure people, places, and natural and built systems are able to adapt to and mitigate climate change.” Once implemented, it will help guide the county’s projects, programs and master plans.

Studies have shown the primary driver of climate change is human activity related to the burning of fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas for heat, electricity and transportation. Burning fossil fuels produces greenhouse gas emissions that trap heat in Earth’s atmosphere, warming the air, land and ocean.

Climate change impacts are evident worldwide. In addition to rising sea levels and coastal erosion, they can exacerbate weather events such as storms, cyclones, droughts, wildfires, heat waves, precipitation and floods. Kauaʻi residents clearly remember the torrential floods of 2018, 2019 and 2020, which damaged or destroyed infrastructure and hundreds of homes.

“The Kauaʻi CAP started in fall 2021 just as a climate adaptation plan,” Williams said. “But when we started talking to people, some of them asked an excellent question: ‘Why is the focus only on adapting to climate change? We don’t want to just wait for climate change to happen; we want to fight it, too.’”

Thus, the scope of the plan has expanded to proactively mitigate climate impacts as well as to prepare for them. It will develop strategies for Kauaʻi County to meet emissions reduction targets, identify its vulnerability to climate change risks and hazards, and offer recommendations that will help residents become more resilient and thrive in the face of them.

Kauaʻi CAP’s advisory committee comprises people from all walks of life: scientists, educators, health officials, Hawaiian cultural experts, high school and college students and staff from government departments and agencies. Community feedback is also key.

“We’ve already completed a series of open houses and small-group talk-story sessions around Kauaʻi,” Williams said. “We’ve just started virtual and in-person workshops to give residents a forum to talk about what they think is appropriate in the context of their lives and homes. For example, should the plan concentrate on nature-based strategies such as restoring dunes or ‘managed retreat’ alternatives such as property buyouts, typically by the federal government, in vulnerable neighborhoods?”

Photo: Kauaʻi Mayor Derek Kawakami
Kauaʻi Mayor Derek Kawakami. – Photo: County of Kauaʻi

Bill No. 2879, which Mayor Derek Kawakami signed into county law last October, is an example of another approach. The result of a collaboration between Kauaʻi’s Planning Department and the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa’s Climate Resilience Collaborative (soest.hawaii.edu/crc), it regulates new construction based on scientists’ sea-level rise projections (Kauaʻi is one of the first counties in the country to do so).

Coastal flooding and erosion are bound to occur as sea levels continue to rise. Using published and peer-reviewed computer modeling predictions, the County of Kauaʻi Sea Level Rise Constraint District Viewer was created as an online tool, so buildings and infrastructure are built with future conditions in mind.

“This map is a zoning overlay for properties exposed to sea level rise,” Williams said. “Bill 2879 requires it to be used for all new construction in those areas. You can click on a specific parcel, and the map will show annual projections of flooding and high-wave heights, calculated at 3.2 feet above sea-level rise. Whatever those numbers are, non-residential structures must be built one foot higher and residential structures must be built two feet higher to be at a safe elevation.”

There are other ways a community’s wellbeing can be affected by climate change. For example, several consecutive days of excessive heat will disproportionately affect keiki and kūpuna.

“We’ve identified neighborhoods that have a higher percentage of children and seniors, so their needs can be addressed,” Williams said. “We also know being on a fixed household budget would determine whether or not someone can afford to install air conditioning. We will be incorporating those kinds of social aspects into the Kauaʻi CAP; in this case, perhaps providing air-conditioned cooling shelters in neighborhood centers in those areas.”

All community input should be gathered by fall, and it will take another few months to draft the plan. By the end of this year, the public will have opportunities to comment on it.

Kawakami is excited and optimistic about what the plan can accomplish.

“As a surfer, I have a great level of respect and awe for the ocean and our natural environment,” he said. “Being in the water is where I reflect on life, it’s where I go to pray, it’s really where I do my best thinking. That’s why I’m passionate about the development of the Kauaʻi CAP and why I’m proud of our Planning Department for leading this charge so that we can protect our people and this beautiful place we call our home.”

For more information about the Kauaʻi CAP, call (808) 241-4050, email plankauai@kauai.gov or visit kauaiadaptation.com.