The Fallacy Of Retreat For Coastal Zone Management

Dr. Roger Welch explains how the climate change ideology has led to a failure to protect coastal properties:

The New South Wales (NSW) State Government has identified 19 NSW coastal communities as coastal hot spots.
To the great concern of local communities, this designation was followed in 2010 by direction from State Government that Councils quickly adopt Coastal Zone Management Plans (CZMPs) requiring “retreat” from coastal areas where properties are threatened by beach and dune erosion.

In addition, the adoption by State Parliament of the “Coastal Protection and other Legislation Amendment (the “Sartor Legislation”) in early 2011 further unsettled residents along the coastline where, understandably, these Government measures are not acceptable to the many Australians who live, work and holiday in these beautiful coastal areas. The new State Government has not yet declared its stand on this issue of mandated retreat which affects not only the thousands of property owners who may be forced to abandon their homes, but also entire communities and potentially billions of dollars worth of properties.

Those in State government subservient to an unwavering climate change ideology have apparently decided that on the basis of projections of sea level rise coastal areas are doomed to inundation and should not be protected. Councils have been instructed to re-write their Coastal Management Plans to embody retreat.

Furthermore, this direction had been well telegraphed for several years previously, thus giving Councils carte blanche to ignore or re-write their own ratified CZMPs. These “old” CZMPs have historically included measures for protection of coastal property, and in some cases “buy back” of properties affected by dune erosion when they came within 20 metres of dune escarpment. Effectively the Climate Change ideology when translated from State to Local Government has resulted in inactivity and neglect of property protection along the beaches of coastal NSW during the decade plus term of the Labour government.

At Taree Old Bar, houses undermined by dune erosion were condemned by the local council after years of neglecting possible measures for their protection, and their owners were charged for removal costs. The recent Sartor Legislation compounded the effects of these new Council Plans on all property owners within kilometres of coastal water whether sea, estuary, river or stream in NSW and offered no protection to individual property owners.

The idea of retreat has been around for a while and forms part of the building code in coastal Byron Shire. Houses within a described line of coastal inundation must be built to a code that specifies they are demountable in the case of flooding and can be carted away; although no one can say where the trucks and manpower will come from in an emergency or how the capacity of the roads will be able to handle whole suburbs leaving town at the same time in the height of a storm.

Retreat has been a flawed concept from the start but the mythology has been embraced and enshrined in building codes. It is determined (guesstimated) with reference to hypothetical lines in the sand where inundation will occur over 25, 50 and 100 year time frames. In some communities the 25 year line has already been breached. The new Retreat policy not only includes past building codes but goes further and encompasses existing properties which are not demountable having been built years before current building codes were invented. These properties can be torn down and their owners will have no recompense.

Low lying coastal communities are built on sand which perhaps dating back to the time of Gondwanaland has its origins from the southern coastline of our terra nullius. Over eons of time there has been a northward flow of silica sand along the NSW and Queensland coasts. The sand banks up eventually to form Fraser Island. Man-made barriers such as rock walls to protect bars disrupt the flow of sand and also cause sand to be deposited within rivers where it is bottled up by narrow entrances. The northward flow of sand continues, thus there is accelerated erosion of beaches on the north side of bars, a direct consequence of man-made interference to coastal sand ecology. This is seen at Wooli where the Wooli-Wooli River is silting up, and dunes north of the seaway are eroding.

Why the coastal areas have been singled out for retreat in NSW is not clear. In Queensland, local councils quietly get on with the job, spend money and do works to protect their coastline. Even on a stringent budget of $1.8M annually, the Gold Coast manages up to three storm erosion events and provides for regular maintenance of the beach which is well regarded as a vital business amenity. The introduction of a sand bypass at Tugun has successfully resulted in the re-building of Kirra Beach and has created a sand bank for northward dispersion. Mooloolaba is a leader in coastal beach management recognising the value of the beach to its economy from tourism. These councils have wisely concentrated their precious dollars on action, not on wasteful inaction, flawed studies and polemics.

Unfortunately these progressive measures stand to change with new Federal Government measures also formalising Retreat. As recent severe storms in Queensland have demonstrated, hot spots are also occurring in non coastal areas. Severe damage during storm impacts last Christmas in Queensland occurred many kilometres inland. In the Clarence Valley, more money has been spent on dykes, and repairs following inland flooding than has ever been spent on conserving the beach at Wooli. Our whole continent is at risk from natural disasters.

Retreat is not part of the Australian ethos; we changed the course of the war in the Pacific when our soldiers did not retreat from our defensive lines at Milne Bay; we do not retreat from vaccinating our children to protect them from crippling diseases. Retreat with its controversies now creates class divisions and a decidedly un-Australian social divide more typical of the activities of the Socialists of a former era. The “have nots” in power, to satisfy the monster of their ideology, legislate to deprive the “haves” of their property. Would we sacrifice our core social equity to that of a minority who believe they can decide who can stay and who must go? Do we condemn financially average communities like Wooli in favour of rich communities like the Gold Coast? Do we close a whole coastal community in order to save the Coolangatta Airport, itself precariously built on a coastal flood plain not far above sea level? What about the old pensioners in Wooli who now cannot sell their houses to fund nursing home care in Grafton?

Just before the NSW State Government went into the 2010 Christmas recess, the Byron Shire Council attempted to force through adoption of its new Retreat-focussed CZMP. Over 800 objections were lodged. Even council officers advised that the proposed plan was flawed and it should be recalled from the Minister. The Council backed down and withdrew the plan; no doubt this about face was a reaction to legal action from residents who understand the need to protect Belongil Beach. At Byron Bay, once the ocean sweeps through Belongil Beach it would next cut off power, road and rail services to the town and as sea water pours into Johnson Street most of the CBD would be flooded. As is happening at Byron will it be the way of the future that property owners will have to use the courts to force local councils to comply with their own charters for care and maintenance of the community? Is this a fair go? There is increasing social tension developing in coastal communities between property owners from all walks of life and the civil servants who are paid by the tax payer. Currently sequelae of Retreat have flowed onto objections to NSW Land Tax assessments. Should property owners pay Land Tax if their property has been condemned by Government legislation? Government actions could effectively criminalise Aussie mums and dads as they battle with pick and shovel to protect their properties in the face of laws which make it illegal for them to do so.

So entrenched has Retreat ideology become in NSW that the Clarence Valley Council (CVC) commissioned a study by consulting engineers with the pre determined outcome that inundation was inevitable and that Retreat was mandatory. This came after a background of inaction for many years despite data showing loss of dune top that particularly worsened during the storm surges of early 2009.

Council conveniently ignored their own CZMPs and, among other actions, its own statutory advisory body the Coastal and Estuaries Management Committee and in June 2010 voted to adopt Retreat preceding the release of the engineering report. The final highly flawed document was desk based used out-dated concepts and made no allowances for new technologies in the adaptive management of coastal dune erosion. In what has been a massive public relations disaster for the CVC, the rubber-stamping exercise failed after over 120 written submissions were received on behalf of the Wooli community who did not want to lose their town. A highly focused community organization has produced its own scoping engineering report which comments incidentally that the Wooli community has more to fear from its local council than from coastal dune erosion. This is understandable when it is considered that a major plank of the CVC proposal was to relocate the beachfront home dwellers to a swamp outside of town. Migrants to Australia will understand that history records that forced relocations of populations carries a hideous social cost.

Financial analysis of the costs of relocation have shown that it is indeed high, particularly when the cost of relocating essential services is considered. The community asks “Why is Retreat to be the only option?”. Why do Councils ignore other expert opinions which show that in the case of Wooli, there is a unique sand ecosystem in which sand distribution can be modified to re build the dunes, increase the beach and protect the whole town?”

In the old days, say the locals, the massive sand bank in the now clogged river would have been dredged back over onto the dune or even a bulldozer (beach scraping) used to push up sand naturally delivered to the beach by wave action. These measures and the like can be taken for a much lower cost than forced relocation. Newer and yes, more expensive technologies as applied at Narrowneck Beach on the Gold Coast see the offshore installation of sand bag structures which act as baffles to reduce wave impact on the beach. In turn, they have helped to protect the beach from erosion as well as creating self perpetuating positive tourism and lifestyle benefits.

The Climate Change ideologues have with a “science” best “understood” by them, seized an agenda and forced through legislation which now threatens the homes and lifestyles of many Australians. We are given no choice in the matter and are forced-fed agendas that are all doom and gloom. More immediate concerns about the need to evaluate the impact of wave and storm damage on coastal dunes, and the ways these problems can be constructively addressed, are ignored. A more rational case accepts that sea levels have fluctuated in the past, and even if there is considerable sea level rise in the future, there is a longer time frame in which adaptation to, and protection from, sea level rise is possible. With positive attitudes, it will be possible to preserve our coastal lifestyle for our grandchildren, and their grandchildren. Even with current technology we can turn a ten or twenty year event, if we do nothing, into a one or two hundred year event; if we act.

State Councils have slipped into the shadowy world of Retreat. At the nineteen Coastal Hotspots they have shown themselves unwilling and unable to deal adequately with these problems and engage constructive solutions to coastal beach erosion. These complex issues are too important to be left in the rubbery hands of local government as in NSW. We are now at a crossroad. We have fresh opportunities with a new State government. Coastal New South Wales town and village communities deserve, and look forward to, Government leadership and protection. After all, the land tax and rates to be generated in years to come, more than justifies further investment in protecting our communities in the present. What about our Aussie lifestyle, are we to allow it to be condemned and lost to the sands of time?

Dr Roger Welch of the Vision Centre is a leading Gold Coast ophthalmologist, founded his practice in 1989, and is recognised for his special expertise in cataract, excimer laser refractive surgery retina-vitreous and general ophthalmology, especially glaucoma. A keen scuba diver, he owns a property at Wooli, NSW and is active in dune care.

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