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Waikiki's Heart Has Been Stolen Grain by Grain : Beachfront hotels no longer have much beach. But sand restoration also raises fears.


Waikiki Beach has beckoned the world for generations. The mere mention of its name conjures up images of soft, golden sand, swaying palms and playful waves chasing each other to shore.

But the picture doesn't quite square with reality. At the heart of the beach, a key element is missing. There is virtually no sand. So much has washed away over the years that sunbathers at peak times can stake out little more space than accommodates a beach mat.

"Everybody who comes here is shocked," lamented John Brogan, managing director of the Sheraton-Waikiki Hotel, one of the "beachfront" hotels with the unfortunate distinction of having almost no beach. "They've been hearing all their life about world-famous Waikiki Beach and they come and find it's just a thin strip of sand."

Prodded by hoteliers, the state government has decided to tackle the erosion problem. It recently announced plans to pour 146,000 cubic yards of sand onto the beach and build large offshore breakwaters or groins to keep it from slipping away. The massive undertaking could widen the beach area by more than half.

For Hawaii's ever-burgeoning tourist population, now running at 7 million visitors a year, that could be quite a boon. But many local folks, notably surfers, canoeists and other water devotees, aren't buying the plan, which would cost taxpayers upward of $10 million. They argue that the project risks destroying surf sites, harming the offshore reef and wrecking views.

"Waikiki is a precious diamond and I see a bunch of amateurs cutting it up," said George Downing, a former professional beachboy who now owns a surfing goods business. "If you wanted to solve the real problem, you would take all the hotels off the beach and put them across the street."

Once the playground of Hawaiian royalty, Waikiki Beach offered a remarkable combination of long, leisurely waves for surfing and canoeing, a reef teeming with marine life and a balmy climate for sunbathing and swimming. Then beachfront homes came into vogue. And the sand began to disappear.

Ever since houses and the first hotel went up on the beach at the turn of the century, the shoreline has shifted. Property owners put up seawalls to protect their homes, and waves scoured away the sand in front of them. Jetties and groins were built to try to capture the beach. Some worked, some didn't. To keep the beach a beach, the state regularly trucked in more sand.

Over the decades, the sand that washed away has filled in some underwater channels, created shoals that affect the waves, and smothered parts of the reef. Some aficionados claim that the surf patterns that once propelled Duke Kahanamoku on his legendary mile-long ride have been chopped up to the point that his feat could never be repeated.

The state argues that this project will succeed because it is much more comprehensive than previous, scattershot efforts at shoreline stabilization. Engineers are analyzing waves, currents, marine biology, historical data and water quality along the beach. Extensive modeling will ensure the project will work before any construction begins, said Tom Fujikawa, project manager with the state Harbors Division.

"In the past it was really kind of a trial-and-error type thing," said Elaine Tamaye, project consultant and vice president of the ocean engineering firm, E.K. Noda & Associates. "The state of the art has improved so much over recent years. . . . None of the plans will have impacts on the surf sites or cause environmental damage to the reefs."

But opponents have big doubts.

"We have heard several generations of fresh-faced and overconfident squads of engineers, planners and bureaucrats tell us beach dummies that they have the solutions," scoffed Rudy Choy, owner of Aikane Catamaran Cruises. "They were never right in the past . . . . Can anyone blame us for being somewhat cynical?"

Rob Burns, president of the Hawaii Surfing Industry Assn., said that "surfing is Hawaii's gift to the world of sports" and surfers ask for nothing in return. "Our ocean parks are the most utilized in the state, and there's no maintenance, no acquisition costs," he said. "All we ask them to do is to leave us alone."

For the moment at least, he and his buddies can take heart from a dispute among the project's chief backers that is stalling the proposal. Hotel owners and the government both want a bigger beach, but they are still tussling over where they would draw the new property line in the sand.

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