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Byron Shire
March 6, 2021

Coastal protection a human issue

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Sol Ibrahim, Byron Shire Councillor

In my role as a Byron Shire councillor I have had a rare opportunity to read detailed coastal engineering reports and speak with their authors. The first thing I have learnt 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 that 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 has lasted 50 years without the need for repair.

Another thing I learned recently is that between the 1920s and 1950s, before the Main Beach protection works, the beach at Belongil retreated by over 60 metres! 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 okay to protect Jonson Street, but not any other coastal community. It would be wrong to ‘retreat’ from Wilsons 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 Street. 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 rubble 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.

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