Posted October 1, 2019
FROM his office in Honeysuckle, Johnny Madsen has been in the uncomfortable position of watching the Stockton beach erosion crisis develop from across the harbour.
The sorry environmental scandal has unfolded one dark plot after another over decades. Now there is no escaping it.
The beach is closed after a huge stretch of coastline was crippled last week by the worst erosion event in 20 years.
According to Mr Madsen, the crisis could have been avoided by using a relatively simple solution to address a very complex problem.
And this is not coming from a man who has misunderstood the problem.
"I don't think it is too difficult to fix this," he said.
"I think it's unfortunate where we are and it should have been done a long time ago, but it still needs to be done."
In 2017, Mr Madsen was in charge of an offshore dredging program that saw three million cubic metres of sand pumped on Gold Coast beaches to combat erosion partially caused by the Tweed River breakwaters.
It took about four months, cost $13.9 million and moved enough sand onto five beaches to fill 15,000 Olympic swimming pools, or about six times the amount needed to renourish Stockton beach.
Coastal engineer Shannon Hunt said the Gold Coast project was designed to last up to 15 years.
For decades Stockton locals and coastal erosion experts have been campaigning for a solution to Stockton's worsening erosion problem, and in recent years pointing north to the Gold Coast success story.
Evan Thomas, of Queensland's Miami Beach Surf Life Saving Club, told the Newcastle Herald on Wednesday that the project had made a "significant" difference to the beaches.
"It certainly helped with the amenity of the beach and with people being able to access the beach and enjoy it," he said.
"We had significant erosion issues two years before the renourishment program."
The problem in Queensland has links to the Tweed River breakwaters, built by the NSW government in the 1960s - that just like the Newcastle harbour breakwaters - trap sand travelling north.
The result, just like in Stockton, is a major erosion problem on popular Gold Coast beaches.
With residents of the Gold Coast complaining that NSW had stolen their sand and fears the ocean might claim buildings, a pumping project was designed in the late 1990s that was meant to imitate nature.
The project, a rare example of cooperation between the NSW and Queensland governments, dredges sand from the mouth of the river, and pumps sand from NSW beaches onto Queensland ones at an ongoing cost of about $5 million per year.
Since its inception, the jetty has pumped an average of 500,000 cubic metres of sand annually to southern Gold Coast beaches, although amounts fluctuate based on swell events and sand movements.
The system was supported in 2017, by a major offshore dredging operation that targeted beaches further north from the Tweed River and was conducted in the lead up to last year's Gold Coast Commonwealth Games.
Beaches that received sand from the offshore dredging project included Palm Beach, Miami Beach, Mermaid Beach, Broadbeach and Surfers Paradise.
The additional sand was deposited around the wave breaking zone, not directly onto beaches.
According to the City of Gold Coast, over time the sand moves with the "coast's natural process", adding extra sand to protect beaches from erosion.
The council said beach nourishment had a successful history on its beaches. It was previously done around 2003.
Dr David Wainwright and Associate Professor Ron Boyd, both from the University of Newcastle, believe offshore dredging is a viable option to save Stockton beach.
Stockton Community Action Group, Northside Boardriders president and Save Stockton Beach founder Simon Jones and Stockton Surf Life Saving Club president Callan Nickerson agree.
Associate Professor Boyd said construction, including rock walls, destroyed the recreational value of beaches. Without dredging, sand is expensive to buy.
Mr Madsen said if Stockton needed 500,000 cubic metres of sand, as previously estimated, the project would take about four weeks, cost between $4 million and $5 million and the sand would last for up to 15 years.
City of Newcastle has spent more than $5 million since 2015 on what many locals describe as "band aid" erosion works, including the highly unpopular rock wall designed to protect the surf club and car park.
"Today I have a dredge leaving Cairns that we could have brought down here but we don't have the permits to do anything here," he said. "It always comes back to the quality of the sand used, but it could very probably address the problem at Stockton for 10 to 15 years."
The sticking point in NSW is that, unlike Queensland, the government does not allow offshore sand mining.
In NSW, sand is classified as a mineral and cannot be sampled or extracted without a licence.
In response to questions from Newcastle MP Tim Crakanthorp, Local Government Minister Shelley Hancock said most of the state's waters are declared as a "reserved block" to control who has access to them and protect the environment.
No areas within the reserved block have been released and there is no intention by the government to declare blocks open.
Mr Madsen, a director of RN Dredging - the Australian subsidiary of global giant Rohde Nielsen - was contracted in 2011 to conduct works in the south arm of the Hunter River. About one million cubic metres of medium to course river sand was extracted and dumped offshore.
The 35-year dredging industry veteran said the sand would have been "ideal" to renourish Stockton, but he was told it would take about two years to get the right permits to be allowed to dump it off the beach.
"The sand was clean and it was a very clear missed opportunity, we dumped it offshore in a dumping area when it could have helped Stockton," he said.
"If we put that one million cubic metres over there, Stockton would not be having the problems it is having now."
Mr Nickerson described the missed opportunity as "heartbreaking".
"That's really hard to hear when you look at where we are now," he said.
Each year east coast low storm surges push huge waves into the Mitchell Street rock wall, stripping the coastline of sand.
Successive studies dating back to the 1970s have outlined the need for a long-term solution on the continuing erosion, but still no decision has been made on how to save the beach.
It's estimated more than 10 million cubic metres of sand has been lost from the beach since the 1860s, before the harbour breakwaters were built.
In January last year, the Newcastle Herald revealed that a former council rubbish tip had been exposed by erosion at the northern end of the beach spewing asbestos and plastic into the sea.
Earlier this month the suburb's only childcare facility was forced to close due to creeping erosion.
Experts have estimated there is a 4.4km-wide sand deposit off Nobbys containing more than 40 million cubic metres of sand, much of it meant for Stockton.
A community meeting about the beach will be held at Stockton Surf Life Saving Club on Thursday, September 26, from 5pm.