A lack of state government leadership over coastal erosion and flooding has left communities and councils along Victoria’s 2500 kilometre coastline unclear about where is safe to build and which public assets to protect in the face of rising seas.
Coastal erosion threatens communities where environmental hazards are clashing with the Australian dream of living and holidaying near the water, but while the government has known for 15 years of the growing threat to homes and infrastructure from sea level rise and storm surges, councils say its guidance is outdated and inadequate.
“Regional planning departments are completely slammed with growth and development whilst trying to manage a growing risk portfolio in coastal hazards,” said councillor Sarah Gilligan, who is driving South Gippsland Shire’s coastal planning strategy.
“Coastal communities and their councils need more support from the state in this area.”
The chairman of the state-funded Victorian Marine and Coastal Council, Anthony Boxshall, said it was time Victoria talked about moving towns or parts of towns, businesses, roads, bridges, sporting facilities and other infrastructure. The state was five years behind Queensland in its planning, he said.
The government’s approach to the issue is based on a 15-year-old planning benchmark for sea level rise, with guidance to councils about where inundation is likely and, therefore, what assets were as risk and where development should not occur.
But scientists say the sea level rise figure is out of date because it does not take into account the projected melting of the Greenland and Antarctic glaciers and ice sheets.
Meanwhile, a number of major research reports commissioned by the government about the climate risks to property, businesses and infrastructure are piling up unreleased in government offices.
Coastal experts and senior government insiders agree that a fear of upsetting voters ahead of last year’s state election was a factor in Labor’s unwillingness to tackle coastal planning.
A patch of paradise
On the Surf Coast to Melbourne’s west, large sections of cliffs have collapsed onto the sand forcing the closure of beaches and, in one case, killing a man near Bells Beach. Further west, at Apollo Bay, the Great Ocean Road has been challenged by storm surge and erosion.
To the east, erosion is encroaching on coastal properties and public infrastructure from Phillip Island to the Gippsland Lakes. In 2020 VicRoads built a controversial emergency rock wall near the Inverloch surf beach to prevent the road to Cape Patterson being washed away.
Victoria’s economy relies heavily on property and population growth, while Melburnians seeking to relocate in the wake of COVID-19 have exacerbated a housing affordability crisis in the regions.
“The state government has been very good at funding the research work that has identified the challenges to the Victorian coast”, said Professor Ian Young, the University of Melbourne’s world-leading wave engineer. “But taking action is difficult when you are talking about peoples’ homes and livelihoods. These are wicked problems.”
Tony Patchell is among the Victorians who bought a patch of coastal “paradise” only to find climate change posing real risks.
He said tidal Lake Victoria has crept about four metres closer to his waterfront home at Loch Sport on the Gippsland coast since he moved there permanently in 2016.
Patchell, the Loch Sport Foreshore Committee secretary, said increasingly strong westerly winds had dragged sand away from beaches, with waves eating into cliff faces and trees collapsing along the lake. Erosion has claimed more than a kilometre of walking track along the shore.
“The winds have gotten worse in the past six years,” Patchell said.
Extreme weather events
Especially frustrating for councils has been the Andrews government’s reluctance to update its planning benchmark for the sea level rise that scientists say is occurring due to climate change and its impacts including warming of oceans and the melting Antarctic ice sheets.
Through its Future Coasts program in 2008, the Brumby Labor government recognised some of Victoria’s favourite seaside getaways and most sought-after beachside suburbs might have to be abandoned or relocated with climate change driving higher sea levels, storm surges and floods.
The government incorporated the upper end projections of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC’s) forecast of not less than 0.8 metre sea level rise by 2100.
But since 2008, researchers have found the Victoria’s coast is also being pounded by waves from a more southerly direction and of increasing height. “That is especially so during storm events, during episodic extremes,” said Young.
In 2019, the IPCC revised its projections – factoring in ice melt – and found that inaction on climate change would likely result in a sea level rise of 1.1 metres by 2100. It has since upgraded the figure to 1.2 metres. South Australia (1 metre by 2100) Tasmania (0.85 metres) and Western Australia (0.9 metres) have benchmarks based on higher sea level rise projections than Victoria’s.
While the Andrews government says it accepts the IPCC’s findings, it chose not to incorporate the revised projections when it updated its Coastal Strategy in 2022, instead promising “a process for future reviews”.
Looking for a map out
In the state’s far south-west, a frustrated Moyne Shire Council has jumped ahead of the government by proposing a new structure plan for low-lying, historic Port Fairy, including factoring in sea level rises of 1.2 metres by 2100.
Had the council’s plan been adopted, it would have made development of proposed new residential areas, covering about 700 housing lots, more difficult and expensive and likely driven down existing property values.
The political sensitivity of sea level planning is evident in a Moyne Council report last year, which noted that about 40 per cent of submissions objected the structure plan, most citing loss of property value, increased insurance and/or development costs and the abandoning of development plans.
In 2022, an independent planning panel examined the structure plan and reported shortly before Christmas. It opposed the council’s proposed 1.2 metre benchmark, primarily because it was at odds with the state’s 0.8 metre policy.
The council is yet to respond to the report but will likely end up introducing a planning overlay inconsistent with current science.
The local Glenelg Hopkins Catchment Management Authority backed the Moyne council’s push for a more contemporary sea level overlay.
“If you adopt the lower future projection, and we miss it by not cutting carbon emissions then you’re putting people at risk in those locations,” said waterways consultant Dr Christine Lauchlan Arrowsmith who represented the catchment authority in the panel hearing,
Moyne chief executive Brett Davis said the state had not provided a “clear road map” on coastal planning and that councils would continue to push for planning controls consistent with climate science.
“The state should be taking the lead role. We need to be cognisant that there are greater climate challenges ahead of us than behind us.”
One road in, one road out
At South Gippsland Shire, the council has just released a discussion paper as part of its first coastal strategy. It flags the potential scrapping of urban growth areas at Venus Bay, Waratah Bay and Sandy Point – towns at risk of flooding, bushfire and erosion.
“Releasing greenfield land to address population and housing pressure along the coastline is no longer considered an appropriate first response given the environmental constraints,” the report said.
Sandy Point, a designated future growth area, would flood under the forecast 0.8 metre sea level rise. Venus Bay and Waratah Bay both have one road in and out and are likely to be cut off by flood, as occurred at Venus Bay in August last year.
“If we try to defend everything we won’t have enough money and resources.”
Coastal management expert Geoff Wescott
The discussion paper also calls for a special coastal overlay to replace the state’s “generic” planning overlays that “do not place front-and-centre the issue of climate change risk in the minds of people living in or moving to a potentially at-risk community”.
“Times have changed,” said local councillor and Venus Bay resident Sarah Gilligan. “We’ve moved on from growth and development at all costs thinking, and it’s time our planning schemes reflected our coastal hazard reality.”
Tony Patchell said when he bought at Loch Sport more than a decade ago he was assured by a neighbour that local homes had never been flooded. Nor did erosion present any obvious concerns at the time.
Last year a state-commissioned report on erosion at Loch Sport found 34 private blocks were at increased risk of flooding, a figure that would increase to 59 by 2100 as the shoreline retreated by 53 metres by 2100 under a 0.8 metre sea level rise, without shoreline protection work.
Patchell wants the government to build more hydraulic structures, known as groynes, which capture sand and preserve beaches. That would add to the dozens of groynes already built along the lake shore that prevent erosion in specific locations.
“The groynes work right along the beach up to where they stop.”
‘Donuts for every meal’
Experts say, however, that the government needs to move on from piecemeal responses to coastal hazards, such as seawalls or groynes that interfere with natural sand movement and set off a domino effect along the coast.
They point to Portland in the far south-west where erosion is especially bad at the end of the town’s sea wall.
“If we keep building walls to respond to these problems we will eventually fill the whole coastline with them,” said University of Melbourne geomorphologist Professor David Kennedy.
Kennedy said erosion was only a problem where it ran up against human beings – homes and infrastructure.
“We don’t have issues where there is open beach and there’s no people living there. I feel sorry for people who’ve built on a primary dune [those closest to the water], but you shouldn’t be building there.”
Kennedy said that he would love to live on the beach: “It would be beautiful to live there, but you can’t eat donuts for every meal either.”
“Nature has given us a buffer between the sea and coast, and it is that natural buffer that works best in terms of protection of the coast from storms and sea level rise.”
Coastal management expert Geoff Wescott said the state government should take Britain’s lead where governments are identifying sections of coastline they will fight to preserve and where they must retreat.
“If we try to defend everything, we won’t have enough money and resources.”
Wescott said sections of the Great Ocean Road would eventually prove indefensible, and the government should consider banning heavy vehicles in vulnerable areas, before converting those stretches of road into walking and cycling tracks.
“That’s going to be tough and these are decisions governments don’t like to take.”
Boxshall, the chairman of the state-funded Victorian Marine and Coastal Council which advises the government on coastal planning, said the government had made a series of important reforms paving the way for action on coastal protection, including the Marine and Coastal Act and the Resilient Coasts program that helps councils work with local communities to manage coastal risks.
However, he noted the program was “modelled” on Queensland’s QCoast2100 program and acknowledged Queensland was “about five years ahead” of Victoria in such matters.
Boxshall said it is time that Victoria talked about moving towns or parts of towns, businesses, roads, bridges, sporting facilities and other infrastructure.
“These are hard conversations to have. As electors, we are really tough on politicians who make long-term decisions that are overall good for us but in the short term might impact us personally,” said Boxshall.
La Trobe University adjunct research fellow in politics Ian Tulloch said governments were aware that decisions made about coastal planning also influenced the votes of city dwellers who either had holiday homes or planned to make a sea change.
“It affects those who want to shift there in the next five or 10 years, and it puts their places in jeopardy if the government increases environmental precautions,” he said.
New environment minister Ingrid Stitt would not be interviewed for this story. Instead, an unnamed government spokesperson said: “We periodically review planning benchmarks for rises in sea level based on the best available science at the time and work to update them as necessary.”
Rather than commenting directly on coastal planning, the spokesperson highlighted that the government’s climate change focus was on cutting greenhouse emissions.
The government refused to release a long-awaited CSIRO report it commissioned in 2019 about the potential flooding of suburbs around Port Phillip Bay, noting that the anticipated completion date was now mid-2023.
The CSIRO completed a second statewide report about sea level rise for the government in 2020 which was also never released.
Nor would the government release two reports by the University of Melbourne on the economic risk of inaction and poor planning on the coast. Early findings from the study pointed to potential damages to property, infrastructure and farms in the trillions of dollars.
Government insiders said that with the election out of the way, some of the reports would likely be released early this year.
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https://www.smh.com.au/national/victoria/coastal-communities-cry-out-for-state-government-action-as-sea-levels-rise-20230112-p5cc6s.html?ref=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_source=rss_national Andrews government criticised for lack of up-to-date data and guidance