Stuck in a bad tide: The race to save Adelaide’s metropolitan beaches

As the threat of climate change grows, South Australia’s coastlines are feeling the brunt of the damage (Image Source: John Dundon)

By Connor Foley@connorfoley_

The beach in Australia can mean many things.

It’s surf lifesaving, short-ended umbrellas, and even leather-skinned old-timers in speedos.

It’s the backdrop where the easy-going attitude is at its peak, and most importantly, where Australian culture comes alive.

Not to mention its impact on almost all daily life.

Adelaide’s beaches are the most visited land in South Australia, making them both a local and tourist hotspot.

More than 90 per cent of South Australians live on or near the coast, spaced out across the more than 5000km coastline of silhouetted sand and sea.

Yet it is neither surf nor sunshine any longer in Adelaide, where erosion, storm damage, and coastal mismanagement have left some of the picturesque beachfront in ruin.

A report by geologist Dr Ian Dyson found that a number of Adelaide beaches had suffered from “large-scale degradation”.

Presently, West Beach and Henley Beach South have a lower volume of sand than at any other time since records began, leaving virtually no beach left to walk along.

This beach degradation is nothing new and has already turned formerly gorgeous coastlines like Hallett Cove into hardened, rock-filled foreshores.

Erosion levels have become more severe in recent years, but government action has not been forthcoming; and when they have attempted to restore sand levels, it has only made erosion more devastating.

“Will they ever do something?” one local cries out as we watch the waves crash over the once glorious West Beach sand dunes.

Three weeks later, beachgoers are hopeful that something is finally here.

The Marshall State Government recently committed $48.4 million in the 2019-20 State Budget to save Adelaide’s metropolitan coast.

The plan includes $20 million for added volumes of sand and $28.4 million for a sand-recycling pipeline from Semaphore to West Beach.

This coincides with the country’s largest-ever seagrass restoration project, announced in May, which also aims to protect Adelaide’s coasts from erosion.

Member for Colton, Matt Cowdrey, who has fought passionately for coastal restoration, said the metropolitan coast plays an integral part in Adelaide life.

“They are the frontline when it comes to climate change into the future, they are home to the surf lifesaving movement, they underpin economic activity in our western suburbs, and importantly, it is the most visited public land in South Australia,” Mr Cowdrey said.

“You only have to ask the local caravan park, store owner, or beach house operator to understand just how important our metropolitan beaches are for the tourism industry locally.”

Mr Cowdrey says the restoration project differs from those undertaken by state governments in previous years.

“Previously a long-term solution had not been funded for the northern section of the metropolitan coastline,” he said.

“The large-scale replenishment, in conjunction with the completion of the pipeline to Semaphore, will see the existing infrastructure at West Beach utilised as it was originally intended.”

The new scheme, which will be completed in partnership with local councils and community groups, was based on an independent assessment by environmental consultants Danish Hydraulics Institute (DHI).

Their report on West Beach found that it was losing tens-of-thousands of square-metres of sand per year to erosion, and sand levels had diminished over two metres in recent decades.

On Adelaide’s metropolitan coastline, sand naturally moves from south to north.

When this flow is interrupted, many of the southern beaches become eroded without a new replenishment of sand.

While naturally occurring erosion and storm damage have played a role, many of the factors that have prevented sand flow are man-made.

In West Beach, sand levels plummeted immediately following the construction of the boat harbour in 1996-97, and the Torrens Outlet pipeline in 2011.

Erosion has also damaged the sand dune systems which are a protective barrier between the beachfront and the suburbs.

This increases the risk of damage to beachfront properties and infrastructure and causes storms to have particularly devastating effects on the volume of sand loss.

Loss of dunes also means its inner contents scatter out along the beachfront, including things such as asbestos, metal, and even vintage Coca-Cola bottles from the ’60s and ’70s.

Earlier this year, a young girl was hospitalised after impaling her foot on a piece of metal while at the West Beach Surf Life Saving Club.

After the incident, 50 other pieces of sharp and rusted metal were found along the beach.

The West Beach Surf Club has been the greatest casualty in the battle for the beaches.

The club has been left without enough beach to train on, meaning they are unable to host state carnivals, and the stone sea wall that serves as a final protector to their clubrooms is now badly eroded.

In recent years, the club has been forced to consider relocating the clubhouse while they have waited for government action.

Just fixing the stonewall is expected to cost nearly $6 million, which would significantly outweigh the cost of building a new clubhouse altogether.

With the new coastal initiative, they hope the repairs come before it is too late, otherwise, they face far bigger issues in future.

With extensive planning and designing still to be done, construction of the government pipeline is not set to begin until 2021/22.

In the meantime, surf-goers and locals watch on with their fingers crossed in the midst of another storm-filled winter.

The announcement was a long time coming for surveyor and West Beach local John Dundon, who called it “the best announcement West Beach has had in 25 years”.

“It’s a policy we all really hope works… these changes impact on our coastal reserve, on our beach, and on our communities,” Mr Dundon said.

Mr Dundon grew up in Henley and since 1990 has lived in West Beach, where he spent his younger years surfing the beach when the waves were sound and the sand was plentiful.

“I’ve watched the sad change in our profile and in our beach,” he said.

He is also the founder of the Save West Beach Sand Facebook page, which has nearly 900 likes and has played an important role in raising awareness and mounting public calls for action. 

With the recent “climate election” dominating headlines, the beaches seem destined to be buried under other grave issues such as the Adani Coal Mine, oil drilling in the Great Australian Bight, and the effects of climate change on our front doorstep.

As just one of many environmental woes, it has not been viewed as a catastrophe, but a sign of the times.

“I’d like to think we’ve had a contribution to helping them understand that what we needed was our dunes back.”

While Mr Dundon is pleased with the news, he says the problems are far from over, and we must tread carefully in the future when dealing with erosion and the commercialisation of our beaches.

“Every time you do something in a gulf, it’s such a fragile environment that you’re cutting off the supply of sand,” he said.

“We are also starting to see commercial tenure as a leasehold on our white sand.

“You don’t want to have to book three-square metres of sand to go put your towel out in the years ahead…we don’t want to make it a privileged few who can enjoy the beach.”

The coastline is still bearing the costs of the boat harbour construction over 20 years ago, while bids for new marinas and high-rise beachfront complexes are coming in thick and fast.

While the Marshall Government’s $48 million commitment is a massive step in the right direction, it is equally important they do not allow the beaches to be sold off to the highest bidder.

The metropolitan coastline has already become the new hub for balcony bars, fine-dining restaurants and primetime real estate.

At The Moseley’s new beach club, customers can rent a patch of beach, drink cocktails, and listen to live DJ’s on the beachfront for $50 a chair; while just 200 metres north, the beach’s entrances and dunes are entirely closed off for sand carting.

The beach has always felt like its separate to everything else; a refuge from the anxiety of the dog-eat-dog world that surrounds it.

The place where your electricity bills and your day job melt away with the crashing of the waves against the cliff and the burning of the sun on sand—it is the place where you go to forget about today until tomorrow.

Environmental damage is becoming unavoidable, and the doom and gloom of climate change is set to change our way of life.

If we do not start acting now, even the little things—walking your dog along the sand or taking a dip as the crimson-coloured sun sinks beyond the horizon—will soon be under threat.

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