Wamberal Beach shows why we all need to get real about the future costs of climate change

IN June, 1974, the owners of about 60 properties at Wamberal Beach, on the Central Coast of NSW, were facing one of the biggest storms of the century that coincided with the highest tide of the year.

The beach was already in a bad state. Two major storms in February and May of that year dragged tens of thousands of tonnes of sand out to sea. Dunes that had provided houses with some protection were gone.

I was 14 when the storm hit.

On Christmas Day a couple of weeks ago I walked with some of my brothers and sisters past the house at East Gosford where we lived in 1974 and we talked about the impact of that storm even there – how flood waters rose to an extraordinary height and nearly entered our house. We were kids. It was thrilling at the time. I have no memory of how Mum and Dad reacted.

In those relatively primitive news times we weren’t aware of the devastation at Wamberal until the following few days, but a NSW Supreme Court judgment from the 1990s shows that people who owned properties at Wamberal “were told to defend themselves the best way they could”.

Some used sandbags to deal with the immediate threat but others put septic tanks filled with sand and concrete in front of some of the houses. Concrete was sprayed over mesh placed behind the tanks. Some time later large rocks weighing up to three tonnes were placed behind the septic tank line.

There was no plan. There was very little formal oversight. There were consequences.

Four years later, in June, 1978, another devastating storm hit the beach under very similar circumstances. Waves smashed into the makeshift seawalls that protected houses behind it, but the deflected waves hit two houses to the north and they eventually collapsed into the sea.

The resulting 1989 court decision, Egger v Gosford Shire Council, was significant because Mrs Egger, the owner of one of the destroyed houses, lost her case against the council. The NSW Court of Appeal confirmed that it was not “reasonably foreseeable” that the 1974 emergency works – where Wamberal property owners were told to defend themselves the best way they could – would result in the destruction of other homes four years later.

Wamberal Beach on Thursday morning was typical of this time of year. Houses that are regularly closed off and empty for weeks at a time were strewn with summer holiday detritus – towels hanging over balcony rails, kids’ bikes and boards laying about, barbecues in position, deck chairs in the sunny spots.

Wamberal Beach on Thursday morning was typical of this time of year. Houses that are regularly closed off and empty for weeks at a time were strewn with summer holiday detritus – towels hanging over balcony rails, kids’ bikes and boards laying about, barbecues in position, deck chairs in the sunny spots.

But the legacy of a storm that smashed the coast in June, 2016, and threatened Wamberal beachfront properties like no storm has in the past two decades was still very evident. Millionaires’ row, as it is known to locals, looks as it always has from Ocean View Drive. But from the beach there are houses left sitting precariously close to steep drops.

A concrete wall that was blasted nearly in half on that stormy night is still in place, the smaller damaged part sinking slowly further down to beach level with every month that passes.

It’s all on hold as property owners, Central Coast Council and governments work out what to do. It’s an extreme situation, but replicated to various degrees up and down the eastern Australian coastline.

There is no easy fix. The 2016 storm confirmed what the 1978 storm demonstrated – you can’t tackle coastal erosion on an individual basis. You only have to walk up Wamberal Beach to see where houses without any kind of walls, but with walled-off properties nearby, were the hardest hit. Sand dunes beneath the un-walled houses were simply dragged away and the houses left terribly exposed. Another major storm this winter could see homes lost. 

For years and years very expensive houses have been built up and down Wamberal Beach. I’m old enough to remember when Gosford Council vaguely floated the idea of buying up all the properties. Even back in the 1980s and 1990s that was never an option. The cost was one reason, but many people – and not just the Wamberal Beach property owners – refused to accept that the sea could encroach to the point of destruction. Many people have refused to accept that climate change is a potential problem.

A judge in a 1990s court case where a Wamberal Beach property owner fought to build a very large house very close to the beachside boundary of his block, completely dismissed an engineer’s evidence about what would happen if a severe storm threatened the house.

The engineer said it was “most unlikely, in his opinion, for the community to stand idly by and watch the destruction of major buildings”.

The judge said that view placed the community “under pressure to undertake urgent preventative or restorative works” and reliance on such an approach “would be the antithesis of good planning”.

There is a lot of agitation about coastal erosion and who’s responsible for addressing the issue and paying the cost. There is a strong view in my local area that not a cent of public money should be spent to protect extremely expensive Wamberal Beach homes built particularly over the past 20 years. Building constraints include piering down to bedrock, leaving at least one with pier costs alone of $700,000.

One of many recent coastal management reports released by councils and government authorities to address these issues notes that governments need to do much more to prepare the public for the likely cost of climate change-related sea rises and coastal erosion.

A walk along the beach shows why. 

This story A walk on the beach first appeared on Newcastle Herald.