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Byron Shire
March 8, 2021

Bagging rock walls

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Thanks, Rose Wanchap, for the clarifications you made with your letter (Echonetdaily March 11) regarding Byron Council’s recent call for a report on the suitability of using rocks at Belongil Beach and other parts of the shire.

You mention specialist engineers stating that the effect on the beach remains the same whatever material is used when creating barriers against the sea.

Well, I’m no scientist or engineer, just a descendant from a pioneering family, but my own personal observations, as well as my readings on the subject, have led me to a very different conclusion.

I am not alone in observing that rocks do have a destabilising impact on a beach. Rocks deflect the sand and push it elsewhere. The deepest water on any beach is always around a rock formation or before a rock wall.

Currently there is little beach at the old Belongil spit. I would like to take you for a walk along that beach frontage, but we may have to wait out most of this year before this is once again possible. The only places where Belongil beach is approachable is at the three Council access areas – where sandbags have been placed instead of rocks!

Yes, the rock walls and groynes in town have protected the car park and swimming pool and led to an escalation of sand to the east of the surf club. Conversely, they have obliterated central Main beach and caused significant erosion to the west and north. The once whole and continuous beach has effectively been split in two, a beach for play to the east and a dysfunctional broken beach to the west.

Then there are the costs associated with the building of further rock walls. We may well have a readily available free source of rocks from the roadworks at Ewingsdale, but sound construction of what will constitute a permanent edifice, not an interim one, and its ongoing maintenance, let alone the impact on the environment and the loss of revenue for developers and the business community (loss of beach = loss of business opportunities), may well exceed budgetary constraints.

A cautionary tale was expounded by Dr Norman Sanders in The Byron Echo recently. The building of seawalls in California damaged further coastline and threatened coastal towns, leading to the extension of the walls, with building and maintenance costs escalating way out of proportion to the benefits achieved by the communities they were trying to protect.

More frightening is what has happened in Noosa, Qld. The surf beach there had always been vulnerable to scouring, but before human meddling began, it had unfailingly returned to its former glory. After Council erected rock groynes and protection walls linking those begun previously by property owners, there was nothing left of the beach but the wall itself. Taxpayers, the Hastings St Traders Assoc, the Noosa Beach Protection Authority, council and state government, all now subsidise the rebuilding of an artificial beach to the tune of more than $500,000 per annum.

Surely everyone’s money is better spent researching alternative barrier protection works than rocks, protection which is genuinely interim, which has the ability to hold the sand and allow the beach to rebuild rapidly after storm events, and does not pollute the sea and wildlife. I’m sure such means exist. Meanwhile the sandbags placed by Council have been doing a pretty good job and the costs are known, not hidden amid future chaos.

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  1. An interesting experiment with initial “success” appears to be happening at Old Bar near Taree. However, the extremities of the experiment seem to have had a similarly more damaging outcome on the neightbouring properties. We have watched with interest and I have connections with the Bangalow/Byron area and the USC in Lismore.

  2. In my role as a Councillor I have had a rare opportunity to read detailed coastal engineering reports and speak with their authors. The first thing I have learn’t is that coastal dynamics are very complex, and what we may think is common sense does not in fact apply. For example, although rocks are “harder” than geobags, rock protection works can be built with voids which absorb wave energy. They can also be placed at a slope to further dissipate wave energy and reduce scouring. Geobags cannot be built with voids, and therefore more wave energy is deflected back to the sand toe. Neither rocks nor geobags “deflect” sand. It is the wave bouncing back off the hard surface that moves sand. The geobags installed by Council have worked fairly well, but have had to be repaired several times at great expense. We now have torn bags floating off into the Bay to pollute and be eaten by sea creatures. This cannot happen with rocks, which are a stable natural material. Unlike our Geobags, the rock protection works paid for by private residents have not failed. Our own rock protection at Jonson street have lasted 50 years without the need for repair. Another thing I learned recently is that between the 1920’s and 1950’s, before the main beach protection works, the beach at Belongil retreated by over 60 meters! The simple proven scientific fact is that the belongil spit, as well as main beach, is naturally retreating. It is simply untrue to claim that the rocks there are the main cause of the loss of the beach. Had we not protected main beach, the waves would now be breaking on to the beach hotel, and the pool would be destroyed. It is hypocritical and irrational to accept that it is OK to protect Jonson Street, but not any other coastal community. It would be wrong to “retreat” from Wilsons’s Creek because the road will always need emergency repair from storms. It is hypocritical to treat coastal communities differently. It is possible to use modern engineering methods to create a whole of beach solution to return sand to the belongil spit and the beach west of Jonson St. But this will take a real commitment from the community to make such an investment. I personally support council and private landowners cooperating to find solutions. In the meanwhile, we have a rare opportunity to access free stone and complete the protection works that are there. The alternative is a beach disaster zone, with houses, bitumen, pipes etc littering the beach. Eventually, we would have to rebuild the dune, or lose the entire community, with more ruble polluting the estuary as well. I have asked to see the so called “plan of retreat”, but no one has produced it for me. As far as I can gather, it is a plan to do nothing. We are not talking about a natural environment any more. Byron and Belongil are where people live. We can do nothing at Tyagarah reserve, and allow nature to run its course. But people also have a right to exist in some places. I find this debate so consumed with emotion and irrationality, that I wonder what the real motives are for some.Is it that some think that only when private houses fall into the ocean that climate change will be proven? Are the so called “rich” coastal property owners to be the sacrificial symbols of human folly? Coastal erosion IS evidence of climate change (as well as other natural and artificial processes). Coastal protection is NOT a denial of climate change. This is not an environmental protection issue, it is a human protection issue. The two do not have to always be in opposition.

  3. Dear Sol
    I trust you watched Prime News tonight. Taree Council are about to approve the building of a sea wall at Old Bar which is NOT MADE OF ROCKS! I dont know what costs are involved, but if it can save the beach, even for the next 50 years, surely it is worth paying. A Port Macquarie man has used the system successfully in South Africa. It is a prefab honeycomb grid-like structure, that, set at a slope to the beach, takes the force of the ocean, RETAINS THE INCOMING SAND (and thereby the beach) and protects property. Looks like the perfect solution for Belongil Beach! The DA for erecting such a sea wall has been made by the Meridien resort.
    Yes I do become emotional, but my only ‘motive’ is to see the beach saved for the use of the community for many years to come. Other ‘protection’ works, like those outlined for Old Bar tonight, will achieve both goals, while rock walls will not. They will only secure the properties, but lose the beach. We must be clever about this. There are many possible solutions, but rocks are not one of them. Its a lose/lose situation instead of a win/win result.


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