New year, new fight for Kua Bay lifeguards

  • Visitors catch a wave at Kua Bay, also known as Manini Owali, on Friday. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

  • The state is improving access at Manini Owali, or Kua Bay, which does not have lifeguards.

  • A new stairway access is being built at Kua Bay, also known as Manini Owali, which does not have lifeguards. (Photos by Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

  • Visitors wait to catch a wave at Kua Bay, also known as Manini Owali, on Friday.

  • There are currently no lifeguards at the increasingly popular Kua Bay, also known as Manini Owali. (Photos by Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

  • Visitors catch a wave at Kua Bay on Friday.

KAILUA-KONA — A bill to fund lifeguards at a popular, yet perilous, North Kona beach passed its first reading in the state House.

House Bill 2044 seeks unspecified monies for fiscal year 2018-19 for the state Department of Land and Natural Resources to hire four full-time lifeguards to watch over Kua Bay, also known as the Maniniowali section of Kekaha Kai State Park.

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It also proposes appropriating $80,000 in general funds that fiscal year to purchase equipment. Of that, $60,000 would fund a lifeguard tower, another $8,000 would cover an all-terrain vehicle and the remaining $12,000 would purchase radios and rescue and protective equipment.

The bill, at least the fifth of its kind seeking ocean safety personnel for the beach, was co-introduced by five of the Big Island’s seven House representatives, including all of West Hawaii’s representatives; five Oahu Democratic representatives; and two Maui Democratic representatives. Big Island Rep. Joy San Buenaventura (D-Puna) co-sponsored the bill.

“It’s frustrating to all of us, myself and the other members of the Big Island delegation. I think we all support this and this is a funding issue that continues to be frustrating but there is clearly a need and we’re just going to keep pushing until this happens,” said co-introducer Rep. Nicole Lowen (D-North Kona), “and it will happen, and it can’t come too soon.”

After being introduced and passing a first reading Jan. 22, the bill was referred on Jan. 26 to the Labor and Public Employment and Financial committees. It had yet to be assigned a hearing as of press time Friday.

Kua Bay welcomes some 162,300 visitors annually, according to Department of Land and Natural Resources numbers. However, those are from 2007, and based on updated numbers it has compiled for a few other parks in the state, State Parks administrator Curt Cottrell said via email, that “visitor numbers are typically much higher than a decade ago.”

State Parks is currently working with the Hawaii Tourism Authority to update those numbers.

Kua Bay’s location between resorts in South Kohala and North Kona, and amenities like a paved road and comfort stations, have led to that increase in visitors to the park since the access road opened in 2004 as part of a development agreement with neighboring Kukio. Previously, access was via 4×4 vehicle only.

“Kua Bay can be a very dangerous beach and really has needed lifeguards for a long, long time and now that they have a better road, there’s a lot of tourists in there who don’t have experience swimming at a beach like that,” said co-introducer Richard Creagan, D-South Kona and portions of North Kona and Kau.

More improvements are underway, including a new beach access stairway, showers, picnic tables, and repairs and upgrades to the existing restroom facility.

Bringing lifeguards in would require the DLNR execute a second contract with Hawaii County to provide ocean safety personnel at the beach. It currently contracts with the four counties to provide lifeguards at four state parks, including Hapuna Beach State Recreation in South Kohala costing about $2.9 million annually.

“As long as there are increases in funding for the current four contracts, and additional funding is provided for new lifeguard services at Kua Bay — this beach would be the next State Park beach with lifeguard service,” Cottrell said. “While beach patronage at many unmanaged beaches is increasing across the state, for the Division of State Parks, Kua Bay would be the next identified location in need of lifeguards.”

Longtime proponent and bill sponsor Rep. Cindy Evans, D-North Kona, South Kohala and North Kohala, noted that those contracts will cost more because of recent public employee pay raises.

She also cautioned this the second year in the state’s two-year budget cycle and “the norm around the state Capitol is the second time at the pie, there’s less amount of money available because so much was designated in the first half.”

“The reason the bill was introduced was to keep on point that there is a need — that the need doesn’t go away and we just want everybody to know that it’s still something that needs to be done,” she said.

Included in the Gov. David Ige’s proposed supplemental budget is $536,819 in general funds for the DLNR to cover increased costs for lifeguard contracts with Maui and Kauai counties.

From 2013-16, emergency medical services responded to 28 calls from the Kua Bay area with 19 of those calls resulting in hospitalization for traumatic injury. The legislation also notes that 14 of those calls came in 2016 alone. Since 2013, three people have perished at the beach, according to state Department of Health statistics.

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Gerald Kosaki, Hawaii Fire Department Battalion Chief overseeing rescue operations, said the department each year supports the effort to secure lifeguards there because a quick response during an ocean emergency is critical to survival.

“For a lifeguard, it’s like a ‘golden minute,’” he said. “If they don’t get to them in a minute and they go under they can drown — you need someone there right away,” he said. “And with our closest fire station 15-20 minutes from that location, if somebody is in trouble — for someone to get out there, the chances of them surviving is pretty low.”