North Narrabeen has been more reminiscent of an inner-city construction site than it has a world-class beachbreak since Local Government began work on its main sand dune during September. Several large earthmovers were contracted by Warringah Council to reshape the sand dune – now covered in dense shrubs and bushes – back to an angle of repose, 34 degrees, after consultation from the University of NSW Water Research Laboratory and consulting firm, Royal Haskoning. But a number of local community groups have been calling for similar action for the past five years and see these latest efforts as just a small chip in the iceberg of a much larger issue.
In fact, North Narrabeen Boardriders and Surfrider Foundation believe the actual break has changed significantly since the dune has grown more than 10 metres over the last 30 years. The planting of vegetation has essentially been too effective, creating sand cliffs and an imbalance of sediment. In windy conditions or large swells, sand washes up onto the vegetated dune, becomes trapped and can’t return to the ocean. The beach is left with a surplus of sand on the dune and a deficit offshore. So has the famed North Narrabeen break been playing injured all this time?
“My view on this whole thing is it’s farcical,” Narrabeen legend Terry Fitzgerald tells Surfing World.
“The sand that should be in the wave action zone isn’t there because it’s caught up in the dune vegetation.
“The whole problem is… man built what shouldn’t be there. It has changed the break from a wide, flat wave-action zone to a narrow, steep one and the dune reflects that.
“There is the rock off North Narrabeen, out at the point, which is the anchor for the left-hander. In days gone by it could be two-foot and you’d be surfing a left from in line with the point all the way to the carpark. That doesn’t happen anymore because there is a huge hole in the bank.
“This whole problem is over 30 years in the making and a plan needs to be developed to manage North Narrabeen as the National Surfing Reserve it is, to ensure the surf will be as good as it was.”
The problem TF is referring to originated in 1974 after arguably the worst storm to hit Sydney ravaged the coastline following a long season of damaging systems. Balmoral was all but swept out through the heads, Botany Bay was left in shambles and the famous Manly Baths and Wharf were kicked up the beach and into the streets. Flight Deck, the long-standing apartment block in between Narrabeen and Collaroy, flooded and the sea level rise crossed Pittwater road entirely. Brendan Donohoe from Surfrider Foundation clearly remembers the storm. “It was cyclonic,” he recalls. “I remember looking out across from Dee Why Point to the German Bank and the barrels there, you could fit a double-decker bus in. It was that massive.” And North Narrabeen wasn’t spared, with the tidal surge flooding Narrabeen lagoon and houses lining the banks. With Council licking its wounds after receiving the clean-up bill, it was decided the following year they needed a barrier dune to protect from future storms of such severity.
The North Narrabeen Birdwood Park, where if you’ve ever surfed Northy you’ve most likely checked it from, was artificially created using 100,000 cubic metres of sand from the lagoon mouth. On the ocean side, a three-metre sand dune was built – all well and good at the time – but nearly 40 years later, that same dune is now over 10 metres high, covered in dense bush and has locked up the sand like a shore-dumped set of sluggos. “The problem seems to have been when they planted Acacia Sophorae, colloquially known as Coastal Wattle, which has been used up and down the coast around the same time as this storm,” says Donohoe. “Within a couple of seasons, all the sand from the southern end of Narrabeen wrapped around the dune at the north. Sand is supposed to move. What people forget is North Narrabeen is a river-mouth break.”
Local lifesavers and North Narrabeen SLSC have also been active in the campaign to reduce dune height because their sightlines are heavily affected. Before the overgrowth, lifeguards sitting in their quarters at the club could see down to the lagoon, out over the line-up, the entire beach and up toward South Narrabeen. Now? Not even 10 metres in front and it forced Council to build lifeguard towers. It’s understandable why Council has been reluctant to take any large-scale changes with an estimated $300 million worth of beachfront property bordering the sands between Narrabeen and Collaroy and within the lagoon. The cost alone of reaching a viable solution would far outweigh the budgets of local government. But every four years since the dune was built, Council still forks out for clearing operations, moving 10,000 cubic metres of sand they’ve essentially put there themselves from the lagoon mouth.
TF says the changes to the landscape of the area are too significant to just forget and he, while supporting the latest maintenance, believes the motivation is not to preserve the break but to avoid any potential public liability claims.
“The flood plain at Narrabeen was wide enough that biplanes would land and complete testing on them during the 50s. That was its natural state,” he says.
“They’ve spent a $50,000 emergency plan to basically protect themselves from litigation which was just waiting to happen with the 30 foot drop created since the large storm in June.”
And Warringah Council didn’t shy away from this fact when contacted by Surfing World regarding the June storm and subsequent erosion. “Council had public safety concerns regarding the potential for a dune face collapse without notice on top of beach users,” says a spokesperson for the Council. “A certain dune volume and height needs to be maintained... since the recent dune work, Council does not consider the dunes to be too tall.” There are no plans to reduce the dune height any futher and Council believes the presence of the dune doesn’t change the process of sand movement between periods of small and large storm activity. “Even if some of the sand was moved, the ability of this dune to influence the oceanic forces at work at North Narrabeen is negligible.” But the locals see differently.
“There’s a three step fix,” says TF. “One, remove the man-planted vegetation and decrease the size of the dune. Two, replace it with natural sand dune grasses and three, put in a pump system at the Ocean St Bridge with pipes down to the beach heading south and release valves so the sand can be better managed.”
We’ve seen what’s possible with sand pumping systems, albeit reliability is an issue. The Superbank is a man-made creation with its management of sand in a fluid form and while banks certainly have their moments, every March there seems to be a well-timed bank for a heat or two.
But, as Donohue concedes, money and political will are two very big variables.
All photographs by Mark Onorati