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Byron Shire
April 21, 2021

Byron Beach erosion needs to be managed

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The current high tides are once again causing significant erosion of the dunes at Clarkes Beach in Byron Bay. Photo Rosie Lee.

Oliver Dunne, Byron Bay

It will be a tragedy for the community of Byron Bay should they heed the doomsayers on the erosion event at Clarkes and Main Beach and follow a ‘do nothing’ strategy advocated by Dailan Pugh’s recent letter.

The event at Clarkes Beach, whilst dramatic, is certainly not the result of climate change or rising sea levels. It is a localised post-storm event which has endured due to an unfortunate lack of seasonal currents to drive the usual sand recharge from the sand plug at Wategos and the Cape around to The Pass.

Worse, it has been exacerbated by unilateral action taken by Reflections Holiday Parks Trust, a division of NSW Crown Lands, to preserve its campgrounds. Installing a short stretch of sandbag wall had an immediate ‘end wall’ effect of destabilising the dune in front of the Clarks Beach Café [now called ‘Beach Byron Bay’] and so on further down Main Beach.

Nothing new there, and any competent coastal engineer could have warned them of this certain outcome.

Nobody, including Dailan, should be relying on the 1978 Cape Byron to Hastings Point Study to make any kind of relevant point about the current state of our beaches here in Byron Shire. That study is but a snapshot in time and has since been overtaken by the enormous strides in the science behind coastal engineering and geomorphology over the ensuing 40 years.

The evidence in 2020 shows that our beaches are now relatively stable, whereas in 1978 our beaches had just endured 30 years of horrific cyclone damage. The cyclone damage of the late ‘60s also highlighted the damage done to the Belongil area by the construction of rock protection works to secure the Surf Club and the swimming pool car park.

It was the same story north of the Brunswick River where the new training walls installed at the river mouth led to massive erosion all the way up to New Brighton and beyond. The same end wall impacts occurred on the Ballina and Tweed beaches after the Richmond and Tweed River openings were trained in the postwar period leading to massive changes in littoral drift.

To all this, add in the long-term impacts of industrial-scale sand mining along our beaches for almost 40 years before 1970. The wholescale removal of all dunal vegetation, and the flattening of the large high dunes that went on for nearly 30 years. Main Beach foreshore was only reconstructed in the early 1970s when the sand miners finally departed, but nowhere near its original heights.

That’s really all the 1978 study can tell us – that for every engineering intrusion there will be a corresponding effect which will require remediation or significant damage will follow.

Yes, the 1978 study did identify that the greater Byron Bay embayment has an annual sand deficit as a result of the Cape. But, what the more recent studies all tell us is that it is nowhere near as large a deficit as the 1978 study posited. Professor Ian Goodwin’s studies calculate that the shortfall of sand not entering the bay from the Cape Byron sand lobe is a mere 8,350 to 11,300 cubic metres a year. This is way below what either the Gold Coast Council or the Tweed sand bypass are pumping onto the beaches north of our Shire annually.

The Byron Shire coast is not short of sand. We are fortunate to live on an open coastal system where a vast volume of sand moves northwards from the major rivers of the NSW North Coast towards the great sand islands of the Queensland coast, terminating at Fraser Island. It’s also Byron’s good luck that a huge sand lobe exists just off the Cape from which we can temporarily borrow and repay back into the system heading north. Think of it as the National Sand Bank where we withdraw one day and pay it back over the following years.

Byron Shire has had beach nourishment programs before but these were shortsightedly discontinued. In 2006 and again in 2016, Council had the opportunity to reboot them but declined. This has made the management of short-term localised events, such as at Clarkes Beach, all that more difficult. And no, I don’t believe we need a major permanent sand pumping operation for the occasional small volumes we are talking of here.

Just as Council rebuilds its culverts and bridges at Main Arm and Federal after major storm events, so too it can, and should, manage the short term and post-storm impacts on our beaches. We can learn much from the experience of the Tweed River Sand Bypass and the Gold Coast Council sand nourishment programs. Both have been running for decades and both are highly effective and efficient. They are now finely tuned to run with seasonal and climatic variables, plus they deliver on wave quality for surfers.

It’s important to understand that the sandbag works undertaken at Clarkes Beach are temporary and under the Act must be removed within three months (BTW, this legislative requirement is a joke – even Scott Morrsion couldn’t get approval for his chook shed in that timeframe).

Already, Crown Lands are talking about pulling out the newly-installed bag walls and then moving or closing down the campgrounds, one of the Shire’s most treasured assets. In the year 2020, I do not believe the future of our town or its beaches should be resolved solely by Crown Lands in Sydney. I would urge Council to request the relevant minister to intervene and provide an exemption so that the long-term protection and stabilisation of the foredune can be resolved, this time with the local community involved. Nothing less will do or will satisfy the public interest in preserving our public lands.

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