Coastal Erosion

With the ongoing erosion of our beaches and coast line, today Abigail stood to speak of the need for a planned retreat. Especially in relation to areas on the coast like Wamberal who already face significant problems with properties along the coastline.

Ms ABIGAIL BOYD (17:15:52): The erosion of our beaches is distressing. None of us want to see our beaches disappear or homes collapse into the ocean. But there is nothing new about storms causing sudden and shocking damage to beaches and beachfront properties. What is new is the severity and frequency of these weather events due to climate change. It is in that context that we need to assess what we do next. Wamberal Beach, very close to where I live on the Central Coast, was buffeted by storms in July of this year, which removed seven metres of sand and left properties at risk of collapse. Property owners are now calling for a seawall to protect their houses and surrounding infrastructure.

Wamberal has seen this before. That stretch of beach has been vulnerable to erosion for as long as anyone can remember, and the sand has never replenished easily. In the 1970s, storms saw several houses surrendered to the sea. Back then there were fewer and more modest houses than those that we see along the stretch now. Back then it would have been a much easier task for the Government to buy back the land and to restore it as a frontal dune. Instead, an improvised seawall was constructed and, in time, covered over with sand. With the problem supposedly buried, bigger and more expensive properties were constructed along the strip. Faced now with the decision between, on the one hand, building a seawall for around $20 million or, on the other hand, buying back those properties for around $400 million, the choice looks deceptively simple.

But building a seawall is the more expensive option in the long run, and it is also the least equitable. Building a seawall simply moves the problem; it will shift the erosion to the end of the seawall and slow the replenishment of the beach. It will protect those houses by making coastal erosion someone else's problem—our problem—by putting other homes and businesses at greater risk, while threatening to wash away our public beaches. And where do we stop? If we are going to build a seawall at Wamberal are we going to build one at all the other locations along the New South Wales coast where properties are threatened too such as North Avoca, North Entrance, Copacabana, McMasters Beach, Pretty Beach—and that is just on the Central Coast—as well as at Coffs Harbour and the northern beaches?

As the years pass and predicted sea level rises are realised, is the plan to prop up all the properties sitting on the coastline with seawalls? Even best-case scenarios will see sea level rises setting beaches back by hundreds of metres by the end of the century. The impacts on all structures along the coastline will be devastating. There has to come a time when we stop doubling down on our mistakes and start doing things differently. The Wamberal Beach Management Options report, prepared for the Office of Environment and Heritage in 2017, considered a cost-benefit analysis for eight options at Wamberal. It found that none of the engineering options, including different types of seawalls, with or without beach enrichment, would provide a net public benefit for the local community and visitors. Only a planned retreat would provide greater benefits than the status quo. These are not subtle differences either. Planned retreat has a cost benefit seven to 10 times greater than any other option. I quote from the executive summary:

The analysis concludes that the net costs imposed on residents, visitors and other parties from the loss of the beach and construction of a seawall, exceed the net benefits stakeholders would receive from the effects of a seawall. The key beneficiaries from construction of a seawall are the approximately sixty owners of beachfront properties at Wamberal. The report details the loss of the majority of the beach due to construction of the seawall and states that the benefits of a seawall to beachfront owners would be outweighed by the net cost to the wider community, including business owners.

The impacts on the economy of Terrigal and Wamberal would reverberate throughout the Central Coast local government area [LGA]. Planned retreat is extremely traumatic for property owners. It must be fair, transparent and carried out with good consultation and support. It is something we have to get used to. The Western Australian Government has a policy of planned retreat for developed coastal areas that are subject to erosion. Planned retreat has been used elsewhere to protect residents from bushfire and flooding. It will become more common with rising sea levels and councils along the New South Wales coast will need the support of the State Government and their local MPs as they grapple with the changing shape of their LGAs and the impacts on planning, services and local economies.

We cannot hold back the ocean. It is a triumph of baseless optimism and hubris to think we might. It gives false hope to affected residents and sacrifices our public open space and a longer stretch of coastline. We need to come together as a community to understand the science and assess the options. The response now must be guided by what is best for the whole community and for ecosystems up and down the whole of our coast.

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