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Urgent action needed to stop popular Aussie beaches from 'disappearing'

A taskforce has been developed to intervene before homes and infrastructure are put at risk.

Two popular NSW beaches are at risk of ‘disappearing’, putting waterfront homes in danger if urgent action isn’t taken, experts are warning.

At Stockton Beach, near Newcastle, and Old Bar Beach, a further two hours north, sand is receding at an alarming rate. Every year, enough sand to fill 58 Olympic-sized swimming pools naturally moves north from Stockton Beach, while at Old Bar, the sand is receding between two and four metres each year.

Old Bar Beach in May 2023
The rate of erosion at Old Bar Beach, pictured here in May, has increased rapidly since 2004. Source: Facebook

Beaches are erosion 'hot spots'

While erosion is a common and widespread issue, these two “hotspots” differ from other beaches on Australia’s east coast because they don’t replenish themselves.

Dr Mitchell Harley, from UNSW’s Water Research Laboratory, said most beaches in the state are “quite stable” and even after severe storms the sand will usually return in a cyclic pattern – but Stockton Beach and Old Bar are an exception.

“There are a few locations where that is not the case and you do see these long term trends, this chronic erosion,” Dr Harley told Yahoo News. “Those particular cases are not necessarily related to any climate change effects, it’s a long-term starvation of sand basically. These natural cycles of sand transport and basically they’re losing more sand than they’re gaining in those areas.”

What is being done to counter the erosion?

Prior to the election, Labor leader Chris Minns pledged $21 million for mass sand nourishment at Stockton Beach, which would help secure 2.4 million cubic metres of sand to fill the beach.

Sand nourishment is “essentially dumping sand at a very large scale” to “artificially widen the beach and provide a greater sand buffer”, Dr Harley said. “It basically buys you time. The sand continues to be lost, but it buys you a lot of time depending on how much sand you bring in. It is a way to help buffer any erosion impacts.”

He is calling on more intervention from state and federal governments, saying the issue is too big and too expensive for local councils to handle on their own.

“Some of these issues are well beyond what the local governments can manage and afford with their budgets, and it doesn’t make sense to be coordinating it on a local government level,” Dr Harley said.

Big waves wash away sand at Stockton Beach.
Stockton Beach was severely damaged by storms in 2019. Source: Facebook

“Take the case of beach nourishments, we don’t even have the ships to be able to do that at this stage. It would involve bringing over a ship from southeast Asia, and it doesn’t make sense to do that for one local council. If you’re going to invest in that then, you know, it would need to be coordinated at a state level.”

Last month, the Department of Regional NSW took charge of the Stockton Beach project in a push to drive it forward, with Minister for Agriculture Tara Moriarty taking the role of chair of the taskforce.

While Newcastle City Council declined to comment ahead of the next taskforce meeting, Ms Moriarty told NBN News work was underway.

"I look forward to meeting Taskforce members, including community and indigenous representatives, next month to hear their views about the most effective way to advance the Stockton Beach project," she said. "NSW Public Works has continued to work with the Port of Newcastle to understand and finalise dredging boundaries, approvals and licenses for initial dredging works."

What will happen if no action is taken?

If intervention isn’t taken, the beach will continue to get narrower and start to threaten homes and buildings in the area, Dr Harley said.

He added that what’s happening at Stockton Beach and Old Bar Beach is a warning to state and federal governments to plan ahead for future risks.

“These sites could be the ‘canary in the coal mine’ in the sense that we could see – in the decades to come – new erosion hot spots like we see at Old Bar and Stockton.

“And the challenge is there is also equal pressures for housing and for people to live near the coast. The coast is only going to become denser in its population and that’s putting more and more potential properties and infrastructure at risk to future erosion particularly in light of climate change, so we really need to see coordinated efforts at a state and federal level in terms of ensuring we have adequate planning in place and instruments to deal with any potential risks in the future.”

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