Western Australia’s love of the coast is becoming a serious policy concern as climate change issues bear down on shorelines across the state.

In many parts of WA, local governments are working together to understand the potential impacts of climate change on their coastal assets, to mitigate these where possible and develop adaptation plans for the future.

North of Perth, the shires of Gingin and Dandaragan – whose coastlines are popular holiday destinations – have been working together on hazard risk management and preparing communities for the potential impacts of climate change to coastal areas.

Closer to the metropolitan area the cities of Fremantle, Cockburn, Kwinana and Rockingham have formed the Cockburn Sound Coastal Alliance, which has been forward planning using IPCC research to map potential inundation and erosion scenarios.

Doug Vickery, manager infrastructure services at the City of Cockburn heads the CSCA, and says despite being a relatively protected coastal area of the coast, the CSCA has identified a range of vulnerable locations within its study area, including a number of valuable industrial, commercial and residential areas.

“Inundation of various areas currently not experiencing flooding or rarely experiencing flooding will progressively experience more, deeper and longer flood events into the future on account of the projected sea level rise out to year 2110 and beyond, especially at high tide and during storm events when there is storm surge and wave setup,” Mr Vickery said.

“Areas most particularly at risk are Fremantle/South Fremantle, waterside portions of Port Coogee, Woodman Point, sections of the Kwinana Industrial Area and the Rockingham foreshore and promenade including Palm Beach.”

Further south, the Peron Naturaliste Partnership oversees climate change adaptation on behalf of councils situated along the northern end of the popular south west region of WA.

The various collaborations are identifying an increasing trend of erosion, more frequent and severe storm events and flooding of coastal zones.

In addition to this, the WA state departments of environment regulation, planning and transport are working on various aspects of coastal management and climate change including risk assessment, planning and capacity building.

Erosion is here already

Despite the numerous agencies working to mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change, some of the state’s identified “erosion hotspots” have already begun to experience the impacts of damaging coastal processes, raising issues of responsibility and precedents.

Last year, the state government awarded $2 million in emergency funding from the Royalties to Regions program to the tiny coastal town of Seabird, which is part of the Shire of Gingin, 100 kilometres north of Perth.

The funding was given to respond to the 15 homes in the town immediately under threat from coastal erosion and the incapacity of the local government to adequately respond to the threat.

Earlier this month, the Shire of Gingin voted to spend the money on building a seawall, which despite being a short term means of responding to erosion, as well as potentially creating additional loss of coastal areas, is the only method to cost the town less than $2 million.

The state government’s response to protect private property, and the ensuing request from the Shire of Gingin to be absolved of indemnity for damages to properties as a result of the erosion, has raised alarms for decision makers about coastal planning, policy and future liability in WA.

According to sources who work on coastal management, Seabird raised alarms because of its potential implications for other areas of the state, highlighting the unpredictability of natural processes and concerns about who is responsible.

In 2011, the then Climate Commission stated that nearly 30,000 coastal residential dwellings were at risk across WA from the potential impacts of climate change.

The state government’s recent contribution towards the remediation of impacts primarily affecting private property points to a potentially costly precedent in light of these figures.

In 2013, the WA state coastal planning policy was updated to contain more detail on the potential impacts of climate change, including an increased sea level rise of 0.9 metres to 2100. According to the Department of Planning, the policy is “used to assess land use proposals and requires coastal development proponents to provide information about the impact of coastal processes including sea level rise”.

This means that the developer needs to reference state government coastal planning policies, which say to expect 0.9 metre rise in sea levels by 2100.

In 2014, the Western Australian Local Government Association drafted a discussion paper in response to sector requests to amend the Local Government Act exempting councils from liability on “land in coastal zones where that council has acted in good faith in relation to its decision to the land in question”.

Under the WA Planning and Development Act, people whose properties are injured as a result of the creation or amendment of planning schemes are entitled to seek compensation.

Councils will still be responsible

Despite the state government’s recent response in Seabird, the state’s 30 erosion hotspots listed by the WA government last year identify councils as having the responsibility for management of these vulnerable areas, despite lacking the resources to independently do so. In the metropolitan area, the CSCA has yet to make recommendations to its member councils about amendments to local planning schemes as a result of its findings, despite identifying over $320 million in potential costs to infrastructure by 2110.

The planning system in WA adds further complexity to the issues of planning, liability and future proofing the state’s coast and communities.

While local governments may adopt more conservative approaches to planning and approvals in the future in light of potential impacts and liabilities, developments over a threshold value are automatically assessed by development assessment panels and a third party right of appeal is limited under this system.

According to Doug Vickery, there is no single solution.

“It is not possible nor cost effective to safeguard all assets at risk, and in some cases the option that will be adopted is to allow coastal retreat whilst relocating or building new assets further from the coast and allow coastal retreat in that are,” he said.

“Certain assets can be protected for a period through beach replenishment (to rebuild beaches and dunes after erosion events) and through short to medium term treatments like batter revetments, groynes and offshore breakwaters. Other assets might be protected by robust sea walls, but even these will in due course need to be extended or replaced by an alternative option and in the meantime lead to a loss of usable beach and often cause erosion to adjacent areas.”

WALGA’s discussion paper identified land use planning as the most appropriate mechanism for ensuring adaptation to the long term impacts of climate change – but noted that some restriction on existing property rights – and potential compensation – could ensue.

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