Coastal erosion has south coast residents fearing they are one bad storm away from beaches disappearing

In the 42 years Rosemary Deadman has lived on the shore of Surfside Beach, she’s watched the sea devour about 12 meters of land.

“You can’t sleep at night when you’ve got a big storm front coming in,” she says.

She says another 2 meters disappeared last weekend as surf pummeled the New South Wales coast.

“The dune is gone, the trees are falling over, there’s nothing. We’ve got no defence,” she says.

Ms Deadman belongs to one of many communities on the south coast calling on the state government and Eurobodalla Shire Council to do more to mitigate coastal erosion.

She says the area needs a long-called-for coastal management plan before the next big storm comes down the coast and scrubs some beaches permanently off the map.

Woman with gray hair looks out on the a beach.
Rosemary Deadman says residents are now totally at the whim of the sea.(ABC South East NSW: Holly Tregenza)

13-metre waves, massive damage, a bleak outlook for recovery

Last weekend, Batemans Bay recorded the highest waves on the New South Wales coast — at 13 meters.

The swell, coupled with an 80-centimetre storm surge, pummeled the coastline to a degree that locals say they have not seen in more than 40 years.

People in Tomakin, Moruya, Moruya Heads, and Casey’s Beach reported dune damage and loss.

The damage was severe, immediate, and widespread.

Space to play or pause, M to mute, left and right arrows to seek, up and down arrows for volume.
Big Waves at Tathra(Supplied: Matthew Nott)

Further south in Tathra, locals captured video of swells unseen since the 1970s.

“Beaches were in a moderately eroded state already, and this one just really drove that erosion home,” Professor Andrew Short from the School of Geosciences at the University of Sydney says.

He is a local on the south coast and has tracked coastal erosion in the area over the past decade.

Professor Short says many of the beaches hit in the most recent storm have not recovered since an east coast low event in 2016, leaving some “stripped bare”.

“The Bureau of Meteorology is saying they expect La Niña conditions to remain until June at least, which would hinder any beach recovery.”

Sand dunes destroyed and walking poles smashed on beach.
Tomakin Beach sustained significant damage during the most recent storm.(Facebook: Tomakin Community Association)

What’s causing this?

These storms have happened before, and they will happen again.

What has scientists like Professor Short concerned is the frequency, and how the coast will recover in between events.

“The climate scientists are predicting more intense cyclones like the one we saw on the weekend,” Professor Short says.

“The storm surge we saw over the weekend of 80 centimeters is an indication of what we will see when sea levels are that much higher — we’re going to get not only big waves but also higher levels of inundation.

“It’s a warning of what we might expect as the climate warms, sea levels rise, and these storms intensify into the future.”

Calls for more mitigation efforts

Ms Deadman is one of many locals who want authorities to do more about it.

Many residents of Surfside contend a significant contributor to the depletion of their beach has been changes to river flows caused by the construction of the Batemans Bay bridge, just up the road.

People at a lookout in Bermagui watch as a massive wave rolls in.
Massive surf pummeled Bermagui’s blue pool.(Facebook: Camel Rock Surf School)

They want the Eurobodalla council to take responsibility and take action.

Professor Short says real mitigation will mean a sand re-nourishment program — dumping sand back onto beaches.

But it is an expensive option.

The last bucket of money tipped toward addressing the problem came from the New South Wales government in 2019, which funded a scoping study published by the Eurobodalla Shire Council in July last year.

It’s now up to the council to come up with a coastal management plan (CMP), but nothing has been made public since then.

In a statement, the council says it is working toward having the plan completed by the end of the year.

“While we understand the community wants to see work begin as soon as possible, it is important to recognize that following the CMP process in this way helps to ensure actions to manage coastal hazards are supported by the broader community, relevant government agencies, and the best possible science,” it says.

It also says a further $5 million is being made available from state coffers to implement the plan once it is written.

The council says Surfside Beach is “one of the many areas that are exposed to coastal hazards along Eurobodalla’s 143km of coastline”.

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