HONOLULU — Waikiki Beach, a sunny memory for millions of tourists, is badly eroded, a fraction of its former self. But talk of rebuilding it is mired in a quicksand of territorial law, lobbying by surfers and decades of studies.
Waves have whittled the white-sand beach down to a sliver ranging from no width at all along vintage seawalls to 100-foot-wide stretches.
State and tourism officials want engineers to do something about it.
"The state's been looking at it ever since the boom in tourism--ever since people were body to body," said John Brogan, a Sheraton Hotels vice president and a leading advocate of large-scale refurbishment.
But that has not sparked any swift action.
"We've done umpteen (preliminary) reports . . . but we've been asked to postpone work on the (final) environmental impact statement," said Elaine Tamaye, project manager with Edward K. Noda & Associates.
The state hired the environmental engineering firm to begin work for that statement two years ago, when lawmakers allocated $1 million to revive the beach replenishment idea, she said.
The next step, getting permits and completing detailed designs, could take at least two years, Tamaye said. And the state does not plan to consider funding that phase until next year.
"Hundreds of thousands of dollars and hours have been spent on studies," Brogan said. "A lot of people are trying to slow it down."
Chief among those who don't want the state to rush into a design that might have unforeseen effects include surfers, whose sport was invented here and has become a symbol of Hawaii.
They say previous efforts to replace lost sand and build jetties to control erosion actually have compounded the problems.
"Every time they've dumped sand, nature reclaims it and redistributes it," said George Downing, 61, a Waikiki surfer since 1938. "Nature takes the sand out to the reefs and fills in contours that make it a unique surfing area."
But the project's main catch is a 1928 agreement in which Hawaii's territorial government and Waikiki landowners divvied up beach access for its first big overhaul. The public got a 75-foot easement along the water, and the landowners got the rest for private use.
That means that if sand is trucked in to make a 1.3-mile Waikiki strip an even 150 feet wide, as proposed, public money--a preliminary estimate is upward of $10 million--would be spent creating public and private beach.
"We're asking the hotel owners to put aside that earlier agreement," said Calvin Tsuda, deputy director of the state harbors division. "The beach is for the general public--all the more so if public funds are being used."
Tsuda's department is trying to move ahead with construction at the fully public Kuhio Beach in Waikiki, a short strip in the overall plan.
Model studies on several designs will be completed this spring, and results will be used to draw up funding requests for the 1993 Legislature, he said.
Model testing is also under way on a concept for Kuhio that the surfers drew up and gave to the Waikiki Beach Advisory Committee, the official public panel for the project, Downing said.
The basic differences in the two plans involve water circulation and what Downing called a wave-absorption wall. State designs would use big rocks separated by gaps for water to run through, while the surfers' design would use smaller rocks low enough for waves to wash over, he said.
"Our design is aesthetically pleasing," Downing said as spokesman for the Surfing Education Assn. and the Save Our Surf group.
State Rep. Duke Bainum, whose district includes Waikiki, said the state must take the time to consider the surfers' design seriously.
"We're moving as fast as government moves," Bainum said.