Sean Doherty: The Problem Is Bigger Than Wamberal

24 Jul 2020 24 Share

Sean Doherty

Senior Writer

Screenshot: YouTube/UNSW Water Research Laboratory

Screenshot: YouTube/UNSW Water Research Laboratory


The Vexed Issue of Saving Beachside Property and the Undermining of Future Plans for Sea Level Rise

Not for the first time houses are on the verge of sliding into the ocean at Wamberal.

It’s been a long running saga on the NSW Central Coast. A week after the swell hit – and four decades after erosion first saw houses at Wamberal drop into the ocean – a solution remains unclear, both for Wamberal and several other erosion hotspots like Collaroy, Belongil, Stockton and Old Bar to name a few.

What’s happening at Wamberal right now brings into sharp relief an old problem… and a new one that will affect more beach towns than Wamberal.

Last week’s East Coast Low washed away 30 metres of beach at Wamberal. It took seven metres of sand, undermining the foredune and once again leaving beachfront houses teetering, close to slipping into the sea. On Monday, 18 houses along Ocean View Drive were evacuated indefinitely. In a way they were lucky. A week later 1.9m high tides might have finished the job.

Authorities are scrambling to save the houses. The NSW State Government has engaged a coastal engineering consultancy to come up with a short term fix. The Central Coast Council has called for a State of Emergency to be declared, and given the green light for homeowners to take matters into their own hands, shoring up their properties with whatever they can get their hands on.

The panic belies the fact that this scene at Wamberal was not only predicted, not only likely… but has actually happened before. How did we get here? How long have you got? This issue has been thrashed around the yard for 40 years.

The beach at Wamberal was vulnerable to erosion long before the homes, the homeowners, and even before their ancestors first turned up. Terrigal Lagoon sits directly behind Wamberal Beach and currently drains into the sea just to the south of the slipping houses. Local lore however has the lagoon – at some point in the past – draining to the ocean up the beach closer to “The Ruins” at 25 Ocean View Drive, where the foundations of a house lost to sea in the ’78 swell can still be seen. The Wamberal dune sits between Terrigal and Wamberal lagoons. The houses have got water on three sides. The dune is the only thing sticking up above it.

Two erosion events in the ’70s – the infamous May ’74 storm and another one in June ’78 – saw several houses on the strip claimed by the sea. Back then they were modest single-storey fibro and brick holidayers, and at the time much of the strip wasn’t built on at all. If authorities had their time again, ’78 was the moment for the blocks to be bought back by either the council or the State Government and the whole thing restored to a frontal dune. Instead they dumped boulders, concrete, car bodies and septic tanks in front of the remaining houses as an improvised seawall. The sand eventually returned, everyone forgot about it and the problem remained for another day.

A house gets lost to the ocean – Wamberal, June 1978

A house gets lost to the ocean – Wamberal, June 1978

In the decades since the whole strip has been built out, and the natural sandflow that built the dune over thousands of years has largely stopped. Being tucked inside Terrigal’s Skillion headland the beach is also shadowed from longshore sand drift. It doesn’t replenish easily. My mum lives a few hundred metres away on the hill behind Terrigal pub, and I’ve surfed the Wamby stretch a heap. In almost two decades of surfing I can barely ever recall an outside sandbank forming. It’s always been a straight shorebreak. With no outside reef to break up wave energy, a big swell slams the beach with nothing to slow it down, a problem exacerbated when the swell is square out of the the east.

All the while the houses have got bigger and their value has increased… as has the cost of defending them from the ocean. For decades, homeowners have been calling on council and state government to fund a seawall along the front of their properties, those calls getting louder since the Black Nor’ Easter swell of 2016 which again threatened houses.

The homeowners have put this back on council. If the council approved them to build there in the first place, then the council has a duty to protect the dwellings. But while the idea of a seawall is universally popular with effected homeowners, it’s largely unpopular with the ratepayers and taxpayers who’d foot the bill. You only have to browse the comments section on any coastal erosion story to pick up on a general sentiment of, well, you built your multi-million dollar beach house on a sand dune where houses have already been lost, what did you expect? The properties have been billed in the press as “luxury beach houses” although many of them are original family properties that have been renovated and built on over the years. Almost all of them, however, have chosen to build at the top of the dune to take advantage of the view. 

Storm conditions at Pearl Beach in 1986, just south of Umina.

Storm conditions at Pearl Beach in 1986, just south of Umina.

The cost of an engineered seawall is currently estimated at around $20 million. The cost of purchasing the houses at market value is somewhere around $400 million. There’s no easy or cheap solution here. The chance for that was 40 years ago. The cost of a seawall is one issue; whether a seawall would simply move the erosion problem up the beach to the end of the wall is another. As with Terrigal Lagoon draining to the ocean, water – in time – will simply find its own way and look for low and weak points. A seawall would also slow the replenishment of the beach in front of it.

Beyond the cost of the seawall is the precedent it sets. Locally, last week’s storm also severely eroded properties up the coast at North Entrance. Historically, local properties at North Avoca, McMasters, Copacabana and Pretty Beaches have all been threatened with erosion. They can’t all have seawalls.

You can’t outbuild the tide everywhere… and why would you if sea levels this century are being predicted to rise? The problem is far bigger than Wamberal. And if you think this is a shitfight, what happens if you’re confronted with a foot or two of sea level rise and there are suddenly Wamberals everywhere?

There is a long game here and councils and governments already have one eye on a future with the potential for sea level rise. For the most part, responsibility has fallen back on local councils, and several are already well down the road in formulating policy around it… but none of it without controversy. Byron Shire Council has famously pursued a long-game policy of planned retreat since the late ‘80s in regards to 31 beachfront houses inside the bay at Belongil. The council has fought against the idea of building seawalls in several courts and won them all. 

In 2009 the NSW Government set benchmarks for sea level rise – based around IPCC sea level estimates of 0.4m by 2050 and 0.9m by 2100 – and councils around the state began to respond with policy around them, plugging the numbers into their coastal management and zoning plans. With so much money tied up in coastal property however, and with the rise of the climate denial lobby, politically the issue soon became red hot.

The Shoalhaven City Council on the NSW South Coast adopted the new benchmarks, but ran into opposition from property owners inside the affected areas who believed their property values would be hit. Then it got really messy. An excellent 7am Podcast series details what went down. The State Government by this stage were getting heat politically and hospital-passed responsibility for the benchmarks to local councils to decide themselves.

In 2015, local opposition to Shoalhaven City Council’s sea level benchmarks and coastal management policy was infiltrated by an American climate denying lobby group. The Non-Governmental International Panel on Climate Change – backed indirectly by the American fossil fuel industry – set about stopping Shoalhaven Council setting a precedent for other councils. Long story short they were successful, and the council’s sea level benchmarks and the associated policy were abandoned. 

And so this is where we are. We can’t work out what we’re doing next week to deal with coastal erosion, let alone in 50 years. At Wamberal, they don’t have a lot of time to get this sorted out. A second East Coast Low is forecast to hit on Tuesday, coming in hot out of the east. 

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