On Stockton Beach with Willow Forsyth

“There’s this term called solastalgia which is the loss of sense of place, amenity, and community that you can get without ever actually leaving the area, and I think that’s very present here”.

To say that Willow Forysth cares about the future of Stockton is an understatement. Though she still humbly considers herself a new arrival over ten years later, she speaks with the enthusiasm, care, and insight of someone who has lived there for a lifetime. The place has obviously gotten under her skin and it’s not hard to see why. Stockton is beautiful: a peaceful, green peninsula bordered by the Tasman Sea on one side and the Hunter River on the other. It’s a place that has seen its share of tragedy but has never lost its community spirit. People stop and talk to each other here. They participate in the life of the place. They are proud. And yet residents now face what is perhaps their greatest threat: the seemingly terminal erosion of their coastline.

To call this event a challenge to the community is another understatement. As Willow will describe in detail below, it is in fact a slow-motion environmental catastrophe, one that has been unfolding before us for well over a century but hidden from sight below the surface of the surrounding harbour. It is also an event whose causes and full impact have only recently started to become understood. For Stockton, a place that is geographically and culturally defined by the water, this ongoing, unresolved threat is taking a toll on the land and people that is almost impossible to calculate. Stockton Beach is actually the beginning of Stockton Bight, the largest stretch of moving coastal dunes in the Southern Hemisphere and the site of tens of thousands of years of Worimi Aboriginal history. Its global value is clearly significant, but for the people who live there today, it is priceless.

I met with Willow on the top floor of the Stockton Surf Life Saving Club one sunny morning to learn about the causes of the erosion, the ecological and social impact this crisis has had, and how she has been able to employ her postgraduate research on disaster resilience in the fight for the future of this unique peninsula suburb.

Stockton Beach, 1928.

You’ve been a resident of Stockton for about a decade now. What was it that brought you here and what got you so involved in the community?

I had been moving around with my corporate role and decided that I wanted to base myself closer to my family who were in Sydney. My work happened to have an office in the Newcastle area and was just sort of drawn to Stockton. I wanted to live near the beach and be active there. I wanted my daughter to do Nippers and because surf clubs rely on volunteers I decided to sign myself up and do my part. Before I knew it, I had taken the role of Vice President at the Surf Club. That included developing a strategic plan, and with my background as a corporate strategist, it just seemed to be a natural fit. So I started putting together a five-year plan and, as part of that, I realized there was a serious issue emerging — the erosion risk. Understanding the issue was hard, there wasn’t a lot of solid information around and a lot of debate from various experts. At the same time, the Save Stockton Beach group had begun to get active on the issue. I joined that group when I realised, gosh, it’s very hard to have a Surf Club without a beach, and this unimaginable rare event was a real possibility if not an imminent threat.

Before we get into the details of the erosion, I’d like to take a step back and talk about your academic research, which has given you a unique perspective and skillset for addressing the issue. You received a Master of Disaster Resilience and Sustainable Development from the University of Newcastle in 2018 and are now pursuing a PhD. How did this line of research come about for you?

That’s right. I have a scholarship from the NSW Department of Planning, Industry, and Environment. The state government, not the local councils, owns the Hunter Valley Flood Mitigation Scheme (HVFMS), which is quite a unique structure in Australia. This was legislated in 1956 in response to the terrible 1955 floods and is made up of hundreds of kilometres of levees and drainage channels and flood gates. Historically the area is prone to minor and major flooding, we know that from many years of records, reaching back into the Aboriginal oral history of the area, which suggests supercharged floods that reached high into tree canopies. Paleo records show it has been happening for thousands of years. 

It would seem that your research comes at a crucial time. What is the current situation locally in terms of flood risk and preparedness, and what are the objectives for your work?

For starters, it’s important to say that the larger the flood the less likely it is to happen. Experts estimate the probability of these different sizes of rare floods happening, and then name them as 1%, 0.5%, or 0.2% AEP sizes. For instance, a flood size called the 1% AEP event is shorthand for saying a one in hundred chance of a flood event happening in any one year. That doesn’t mean that it will happen only every 100 years, but that there is a 1% chance it could happen in any given year.

The damage done to homes and land comes from both the height of the water and the velocity of the water, and the HVFMS is designed in such a way that it helps reduce the velocity, re-directs water onto flood storage areas, and gives people time to evacuate. Levees have spillways, which are lower sections, where high river floodwaters flow out and the water is distributed across farmland, into the natural flood storage capacity of the floodplain. A levee provides towns protection from nuisance and minor floods, but its most important function is that it increases the time available to evacuate. It doesn’t stop the larger floods that are bigger than its structural or design limit whatever that happens to be set at to balance out all these things across the flood plain. The levees are designed in such a way for the levee topping flood waters to be slower back-flooding so houses are protected from structural damage as much as possible. To work, the HVFMS needs and uses the natural flood storage capacity of the floodplain. Research shows those lands need floods because the floods bring topsoil and nutrients and water. It’s part of the natural ecosystem. Ultimately we can’t stop these rare events but we can set ourselves up to cope with them. This requires a shift of our mindsets and and improved conversations about these two classes of flood events: levee protects flooding and preparing for the rare levee-overtopping floods.

What we’re seeing with climate change and coupled with planning more people living on and around the floodplain is an increased disaster risk. Householders generally don’t understand the impact of the class of extreme rare flood events. You’ve also got six or seven LGAs that connect through the valley which require coordinated management in the face of such an event. So that’s what I’ve been working on for the last 20 months and will continue to work on for the next 20 months: to understand the reasons why people do prepare, and then to help householders improve their preparedness and understanding of extreme flood events.

How noticeable has the erosion of Stockton Beach been during your time living here?

For the first couple of years, I was just a parent hanging out on the beach but I did start to see changes then. I was very active in the water helping out with Nippers. If you look out from the Surf Club today, the water is right up to the seawall, but the beach used to run for about 40 meters out. That was less than a few decades ago. The club used to run the Australian Surfboat Rowing Championships. The National Championships were held here for several years and it was a favourite beach to do it. But you can’t do it anymore because you literally can’t access it. It no longer has the type of beach you need for surf boats, which is one that has a sandbank to dissipate energy so the waves become spilling waves. What Stockton has become is what’s called a reflective beach because of the loss of the sandbank and the erosion. When I understood this I couldn’t get my head around how it happened so fast. It was confusing to try and piece together what on earth had happened. There were lots of competing views and explanations. 

Around this time I met Associate Prof. Ron Boyd as part of the Stockton community group. There had been decades of ongoing research by Newcastle City Council and their expert reports — all of which are available on the council website. But the cause had not officially been put down to the breakwater. Other causes talked about included the loss of vegetation or the effects of climate change neither of which are the cause. Instead, the erosion had been going on for over a century, but because it was underwater it was largely invisible, It all really begins around 150 years ago when, to create a safe shipping port, dredging and breakwaters infrastructure began to interfere with the natural sediment transport and the coastal geomorphology processes around the river mouth.

Forty meters of beach loss is a shocking loss, particularly in such a short period of time. Is it gone permanently?

Well, it’s gone permanently until you have major sand nourishment offshore because the beach is formed by sand in the nearshore zone. People say, well, the sand always used to come back and so we’re sure it’ll come back again. They’ve seen the beach get rebuilt, but the beach gets rebuilt by two things: sand trapped in the sand dunes behind it or from the sandbanks that are built-up nearshore wave zones and that travel north with the longshore drift. So there’s this constant replenishment that occurs with normal, gentle waves that can recreate the beach profile after a storm.

So the Mitchell Street and surf club rock walls were put in as an emergency defense measure rather than a long-term solution? 

That’s right. The seawall that is in front of the surf club was built in 2017, to protect the buildings. A seawall is reflective, not dissipative. When the waves come in, they hit, and the majority of the energy reflects back. It erodes on the way in and erodes on the way out. In fact, it increases the erosion directly in front. You can plainly see that the erosion is greater at the north end of the seawall.

So this means that if nothing was done at all, the ocean would have probably claimed the Surf Club and other neighbouring buildings?

Yes, the rocks protect us from falling directly into the ocean, basically, so without them, that would have happened by now. It’s great to have that protection obviously, but the wall is not a solution because it means there’s no beach in front of it. You never have a beach in front of a seawall. It also will not protect you from the massive impact of a storm surge. Take the Sygma Storm of 1974, so-called because it resulted in the wreck of the bulk carrier the MV Sygna, again associated with flooding that occurred up and down the coast of New South Wales. The massive amount of energy that comes across used to go over the offshore underwater sandbank. The energy drops because it’s dissipated by friction with the underfloor seabed. As the wave rolls through due to that friction the energy slowly collapses into a beautiful spilling wave. But once you have a hard bank here it comes up as a surging wave and all the energy comes to land.

MV Sygna wreckage, 1974.

So how did we get to this situation of erosion with no replenishment in the first place?

Longshore drift in New South Wales moves sand north up the coast. 70% of the direction of waves is to the north because the vast majority of swell comes from the southeast. Sand is transported with it up the coast, generally in water less than 12 meters of depth. There was formerly a big sandbank in front of Stockton, a feature called an ebb-tidal delta. At 30+ kilometeres long, Stockton Bight is a geomorphological area of great significance in NSW. 

Back in the 1800s, sailing ships began coming into the harbour between what they called Coal Island, now Nobbys Headland, and the mainland. They would lose the wind, get taken by the tidal currents and prevailing swell, and often get stuck on the rocks there on the southern edge of the ebb-tidal delta which was called the Oyster Banks. They tried to get rid of Nobbys headland. They literally blew the top off it. But what they ended up doing was building a breakwater to create Nobbys beach and a breakwater at Stockton, which sits on many of those shipwrecks. The water is now 20 metres deep at the harbour entrance and the longshore drift requires less than 12 metres. Effectively what this does is block the natural flow of sand coming into Stockton. The sand can’t get past the breakwaters. It’s eroding here in the northern Stockton compartment because there’s no replenishment of sand from the south. It continues to travel north out of the Stockton southern compartment, taking the sand out of the offshore sandbank and ultimately off the beach too. It has now reached the point of landward erosion. 

So the reason why the beach kept coming back in the past was because after a storm event that eroded the land, which it would do, there was a bank of sand offshore of Stockton that would be used to replenish the beach. Beautiful Nobby’s beach, which used to be a reef, contains the sand that ordinarily would be building up in Stockton.

19th-century postcard showing a pre-beach Nobbys breakwater
Nobbys beach today, with sand once destined for Stockton
Photo by Will Ellis

So we’re looking at over a century of underwater erosion that is invisible to us. Eventually, the situation makes itself known on land but by that stage, it has reached a critical condition.

That’s right. We’ve seen effects on land for around 60 years, but they have not been understood because the beach would rebuild and change shape. Meanwhile, 90% of the loss to date has been invisible to us. In the most recent Stockton Coastal Management Plan (CMP) what they’ve worked out is that over 8 million cubic meters of offshore sand is now gone, and the ebb-tidal delta no longer exists. Longshore drift continues to take sand north but the replenishment system has been interrupted. So for a long time, people didn’t appreciate what was going on simply because they couldn’t see it. Locals who spend a lot of time in the water saw it: divers, fishermen, surfers. Back in the 1960s the Defence Department did a maritime study when they were looking at making Williamtown a deepwater port and apparently some people saw what was going on. But the general public had no idea. It wasn’t until 2020 in the most recent Stockton CMP that there was a formal acknowledgment from local and state government that the reason why there’s erosion of Stockton is because of the port dredging and breakwater infrastructure. 

So it’s a slow-motion disaster that we’re now forced to reckon with.

Look, it has been one by-product of a fantastic centuries-long economic boom, given in the early days the economy of NSW was built on coal. And Newcastle has been built on the back of this port. We know that. But it’s time to fix the problem that it has created. It can no longer be denied.

In your opinion, what is the best possible solution?

Hypothetically, the ideal solution would be to take away the breakwater, but that creates other bigger problems. So what’s left are management options, both short and long-term, recognising the risk. The CMP of 2020 says about 2—3 million cubic meters of sand need to be dumped immediately offshore in the zone of the old ebb-tidal delta. And then it needs to be topped up regularly. The cheapest source of this type of sand is offshore, but in New South Wales since 1999, there’s been a moratorium on offshore mining because sand is included as a mineral. So there needs to be an exemption given for sand mining for ‘beach nourishment’ purposes. We’re pushing for that and we’re pushing for Stockton to be a test case, literally to break open that legislation for the rest of New South Wales. We are unique in that we are totally a manmade disaster, but we are one of many hotspots. But regardless of the reason, unless you’re going to make whole communities retreat, you need to be able to nourish from offshore. Sand size matters. Beaches need sand that is a different size from the smaller grain size used in the commercial building market. Small sand escapes the marine environment and ends up in land-based sand dune systems. Personally, I only support mining for beach nourishment purposes. Dredging sand and dumping sand offshore of Nobbys both have environmental impacts – we’ve been dumping sand offshore a long time. In the scheme of things, the CMP’s plan for sand from offshore is a better option, and less costly for the government (funded by tax-payers), than just building more seawalls that leave the Stockton community bearing the disaster risk of no beach and storm surge. 

What are the hurdles then to making this happen?

The state government making it a priority. Legislation needs to be changed so that government would change it to allow sand extraction for beach nourishment. The next step is the right government entity obtaining a mining license. The community sought legal advice to understand the process. It appears that the exploration lease currently over the Stockton Bight area is owned by the New South Wales Geological Survey, a government department. There needs to be a plan for who gets the mining license, and who it is transferred to for operating the license. Maybe it’s City of Newcastle, maybe it’s someone else.

Under the state legislation, it falls on City of Newcastle under the CMP to get funding to do this work. They have to get grants. Because it’s a specialised activity, they need the support of experts. Stockton needs commitment from state government to create a project plan and a timeline.

Given the disaster risk up and down the coast, we believe it it’s imperative to think about this as a state-wide issue and set a precedent that helps other councils too. This would mean that councils could tap into it when they need it. It’s a solution that makes sense to have in New South Wales in order to cope with whatever gets thrown at us over the next 30+ years. We should use this as an opportunity to get the process right for the future, rather than leaving it up to individual communities to have to solve again and again. Let’s use this great apparatus of local and state government to solve this problem once and for all.

Do you think that the majority of the community wants to see this same option taken?

Up until a few years ago, I think that the council was struggling to engage with the community and they were pushing back on us saying that we couldn’t all agree on the problem or the solution. Just prior to the pandemic the community group held our own presentation to 382 local residents and provided them with all the technical information we had. Afterward, local residents came up to us said “Thank you, we didn’t understand how enormous the problem was and what caused it, but now we do”. Since then and now, when you talk to people, there is a better understanding of the problem. There is an option to build reefs. It’s something that has the support of about 15% of the population. It would help somewhat with storm surges, it would trap some sand, and it would also create some pretty good waves for surfing. But if it costs about $10 million for every 100 meters, and we’re talking about an area of about 2.7 kilometers. Dredging and rainbowing sand is simply a far more economical solution and it would also bring back the beach, dune system, and offshore sandbanks. It would restore a more natural environment. Good for fishing, good for surfing, and good for our community.

While people may be coming at this from different perspectives and experiences, I imagine that ultimately everyone wants the same basic outcome.

Sand is a requirement for a beach, and everyone wants their beach back. Look, you’ll probably never get more than about 75% of people to agree on the same proposal, but everyone does want the beach back. I think there’s enough trust in this community to work together and listen to different views of the problem and the options. People know one another. When you walk down the street people talk, they say hello and they weigh in. There’s that base level of trust and coherence in our community. I know that the Stockton community wants to show that we care about this issue. We had about 2000 people turn out to our last rally. People here love our community and they want their stories to be heard. Last year we all got in red t-shirts and we stood on the edge of the beach erosion risk line, creating a red line made of people and kids and grandparents. We were saying this red line is about us and our lives. It’s not just a line on a map in a report, it’s us, our community, and the risk that’s been transferred to us while others benefited. That’s not okay.

The environmental impact is clear, but what has the emotional and cultural impact on the community been like?

There’s a deep sense of loss, and at this point, there’s a certain amount of fatigue at not being listened to. There’s this term called solastalgia which is the loss of sense of place, amenity, and community that you can get without ever actually leaving the area, and I think that’s very present here. I feel it. I used to be able to walk my dogs all the way up and down the beach but that long stretch is gone now. The surf is different too. I think we’re experiencing a generational loss of people’s skillsets because we can’t conduct the same type of surf education due to the nature of the beach being changed so radically in the last five years. How do you explain that loss to someone? And that’s before you start looking at the additional risk. People who live along Mitchell Street, their houses shake with big storms. They feel the vibrations. And there’s that looming sense of “is today the day?”. I think for some people there is also anger in feeling abandoned by authorities. We wonder, how could you have done this? How could you pass this risk on to us? How can you sleep at night?

It’s also difficult to gauge what the long-term social impact will be. The day-care centre has gone because of the erosion and that was a hub of community social capital. People in Stockton got to know and trust each other because their kids went there. So that connectedness starts to break down, but it’s hard to say what that will mean because we’re not on the other side of it yet. But what we do know for sure is the culture is tied to the place and this means we need our beach. We need to do this better because it’s going to benefit our society to tackle a future full of disaster risk problems.

Categorized as Seafolk
Heath Killen

By Heath Killen

Heath Killen is the founder and editor of On A Floating World. Born and raised in Newcastle, he is passionate about the coastline and waterways surrounding his home. Elsewhere he helps people develop brands, campaigns, and projects based on their passions.

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