Engineers recommend new boat ramp for lower Puna

HILO — More than a year after Pohoiki boat ramp closed because of the Kilauea eruption in lower Puna, engineers have recommended that rather than reopen the existing ramp, a new boat ramp be built.

The only boat ramp in Puna closed shortly after Kilauea began erupting in May 2018 and eventually became land-locked by what is now a 200-foot-wide black sand and cobblestone beach.

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While it’s technically possible to remove sand and create a channel to the Pohoiki ramp, an engineering study commissioned by the state Department of Land and Natural Resources Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation found that effort would be expensive and full of uncertainties associated with sand movement and coastal processes continuing in and around Pohoiki Bay, DLNR said in a news release Monday.

The recommendation comes after representatives from Sea Engineering Inc. visited Pohoiki on May 1.

According to Sea Engineering’s subsequent 32-page report, the eruption resulted in the formation of hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of black sand and cobbles that have been carried southward by the currents and now completely fill Pohoiki Bay, “rendering the existing Pohoiki boat ramp land-locked and useless.”

“Constructing a new ramp at an alternate site would be a more straightforward project, however the rocky sea cliff Puna coastline provides few ideal locations. Seismic and volcanic activity is also a concern virtually anywhere along this coast,” the report reads.

An alternate site evaluated in the study, Malama Flats, is located just south of McKenzie State Recreation Area and “appears to offer reasonable conditions for design of an inland excavated ramp facility, however no quantitative site information is presently available,” the report stated. “The ramp alternative as presented is basically a generic ramp design placed on the Malama Flats topography. Estimated construction costs are considered representative for this type of ramp facility.”

Sea Engineering estimates it would cost approximately $37.9 million to restore the existing Pohoiki ramp, which would require a channel to be excavated through the new beach and kept open by jetties perpendicular to the shore.

The estimated cost for a new ramp at Malama Flats is $14.5 million and would include, among other features, an entrance channel, a rock wave-absorber along the entrance channel and basin, a single-lane concrete boat launch ramp, a concrete ramp approach pad, loading dock, walkway, lava rock retaining wall and access roadway.

But the engineering study found that no matter where the state builds a ramp along the lower Puna coast, it will be challenging, DLNR said.

Engineers studied an area extending about 10 miles south from Pohoiki Bay to Kalapana, and found the shoreline is almost entirely rocky sea cliffs, with deep water close to the shore and high ground elevations near and no shallow water embayments or “significant headlands to provide natural wave protection.”

Mayor Harry Kim said that from the start, he thought dredging would not be a practical option because of the shifting, unpredictable sands.

“And also the second reason: It would really take away from what nature created — a very nice recreation area in regards to the (new) sand beach,” he told the Tribune-Herald on Monday.

Kim, however, said he was surprised the state was looking at sites south of Pohoiki Bay, and would be “curious to see if they did look to areas north of Pohoiki” for alternate sites.

Puna state Rep. Joy San Buenaventura, who had not yet seen the report when she spoke to the Tribune-Herald on Monday, was not surprised by the recommendations, and said she has been hearing reports that “since Pohoiki continues to grow with more and more sand being created,” dredging would be a significant and continuing cost.

She was, however, surprised that Malama Flats was named as an alternate site this early.

“Not good or bad, just surprised,” she said.

The most important thing for area fishermen is how soon a new access point could be built, San Buenaventura said.

“The fishermen are having a difficult time recovering because the cost of fuel getting around from Hilo to the fishing areas of Puna are significant because of the current along Kapoho cape. Because of that current, it is a significantly huge cost of fuel to get to prime fishing areas off Puna,” she said. “It’s part of recovery. Everyone needs to be able to start making the money they used to make to be able to recover, and it’s difficult for fishermen to recover when their costs are huge in order to be able to get the same amount of catch that they used to.”

According to San Buenaventura, a meeting to discuss the report is set for July 13.

Michael Trask, a commercial captain and founder of the Big Island Fishermen’s Association, has fished out of Pohoiki since 1980.

“When the fish are biting, I’ve seen more than 100 boats going out of there and coming in every day,” he said.

Trask said it took 20 years to get the Pohoiki ramp, and he doesn’t think any work on a new ramp will happen soon.

“I think there’s a really good chance the sand will clear out of there before any kind of ramp is started on this side of the island,” he said. “… I know it’s all up in the air right now, but in my heart, I just feel like a couple of big storms (will) come in and wash the place out.”

Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation will work with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to secure funding to build a new ramp and associated facilities, and when and if that happens, the division will have to obtain appropriate permits and have public hearings or informational meetings with local boaters and the community, DLNR said.

The state Legislature approved $500,000 this session for planning and design for a new boat ramp.

A DLNR spokesman said the study and report cost $40,000.

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According to Kim, the county would not be responsible for any cost of the project, but said people should be aware “this is a very long-term project. It’s not something that will happen in a year or two.”

Email Stephanie Salmons at ssalmons@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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