Council approves Hilo Bay breakwater study

  • Mike Brestovansky/Tribune-Herald Construction of the breakwater began more than a century ago, and the structure may be partially to blame for poor water quality in Hilo Bay.

The Hawaii County Council voted Wednesday to approve funding for a study investigating how to improve the water quality of Hilo Bay.

A follow-up to a 2009 study by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the study will determine to what extent the water circulation of Hilo Bay would be improved if a breach was opened through the bay’s breakwater.

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Mayor Harry Kim, who has pursued the project for years, said the 2009 study indicated that opening a gap in the breakwater likely would improve the water quality of the bay “significantly,” but the follow-up study will determine precisely how significantly.

Construction of the nearly 2-mile-long breakwater began more than a century ago in order to shield ships in the bay from rough seas, but the structure also has trapped sediment flowing out from the Wailuku and Wailoa rivers, leading to poor water quality in the bay.

“Everyone using the bay has realized how poor the quality of the water is here,” Kim said at the council meeting Wednesday.

The council voted unanimously in support of the resolution, with little discussion. However, Puna Councilman Matt Kaneali‘i-Kleinfelder mentioned that, as a college freshman, he had written an essay about ways to improve Hilo, including a restructuring of the breakwater.

In his paper, Kaneali‘i-Kleinfelder said, he cited a 1983 study by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that explained the extent of the harm the breakwater caused the bay.

“It was built on this beautiful barrier reef,” Kaneali‘i-Kleinfelder said. “And then we poured all this concrete and cement on it and killed the reef, and trapped all this sediment from two rivers, and all the fish went away.”

Kaneali‘i-Kleinfelder said opening a breach in the breakwater cannot restore the old reef, but it might improve water circulation enough that fish and other ocean life will return to the bay, which will also attract more tourists to the city, he said. The councilman, who is a surfer, also waxed longingly about the possibility of surfable waves returning to the bay.

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The study will cost $100,000, of which the county will contribute $25,000. The state Department of Transportation will supply an additional $25,000, with the remainder contributed by the Army Corps of Engineers.

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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