Bay restoration being revisited; One option is modifying the breakwater

A breakwater stretches nearly 2 miles into Hilo Bay. TOM CALLIS/Tribune-Herald

State and federal officials plan to take another look at whether the 10,080-foot-long breakwater in Hilo Bay should be modified to improve the marine environment.

The breakwater, built by the Army Corps of Engineers atop of Blonde Reef between 1908 and 1930, was constructed to shield ships. But it’s also been blamed for inhibiting water circulation, and trapping contaminates and silt from the Wailuku and Wailoa rivers.


Mayor Harry Kim pushed for action during a previous term in office in 2005, which led to the University of Hawaii conducting two studies that assessed the problem and offered proposed steps to be taken, such as a water circulation model. But ultimately no solutions were pursued.

The final report from 2009 noted Hilo Bay had exceeded state water quality standards since the late 1970s, and was included in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s list of impaired water bodies in 1998.

Recently, Kim raised the issue again with the state Department of Transportation’s harbors division, which, to his surprise, quickly agreed to follow up with a new $100,000 technical study.

Multiple options would be considered, in addition to changing the breakwater.

According to an email harbors Deputy Director Derek Chow sent to the county, the scope will include quantifying environmental benefits for “measures such as breach/modifications to the breakwater, terrestrial detention basins, and others.”

“This study will be more comprehensive than the previous and will quantify the improvement to water quality and ecosystem restoration for each measure,” Chow said in the email. He added the study could be started by the end of the year. The study would be led by the Army Corps, with the county and DOT each contributing $25,000.

“I immediately called him back and said, ‘You got it,’” Kim told the Tribune-Herald.

While water quality may have improved since the demise of the sugar industry, few Hilo residents choose to swim inside the breakwater.

The long Bayfront beach is mostly occupied by paddlers. Water quality issues are well known to them.

“If one of our kids has cuts or anything, we don’t let them paddle until it’s taken care of,” said paddling coach Iryn Kekaualua. The concern is they could get a staph infection.

He said he thinks modifying the breakwater would be a “positive improvement,” and could clear up the water.

“We don’t know what’s underneath,” Kekaualua said.

Jeremiah White was fishing on the breakwater with his family on Saturday. He said he would be alright with it being shorter, noting most fishermen don’t venture out too far anyway.

Email Tom Callis at

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