Surfers left in the dark over Ballina ocean pool
In 2011, 42-year old surfer Richard King was killed after being struck on the head by a boat navigating Currumbin Alley. A year later, Gold Coast City Council chaired a meeting prior to their annual Currumbin dredging campaign inviting all the user groups to attend: recreational boaters, local fishoes, as well as representatives of the tourism minister, transport minister, local councillors, and even state members of parliament.
Every stakeholder group was present at the meeting, except for surfers.
Not the local Surfrider chapter, the local boardriders club, the surf industry task force, nor Surfing Queensland, or Surfing Australia who have an office twenty minutes down the road and a charter that says they’ll advocate for recreational surfers.
The stakeholders with the most at stake - at least considering King’s death - weren’t present.
Though it happened almost a decade ago, this example illustrates how local surfing communities have historically been left out of conversations they should rightfully be a party to. Coastal development is increasing and the beach is a contested zone, it’s used by many groups, including surfers.
Recently, Ballina Council proposed construction of a new rockpool at the southern end of Shelly Beach, adjacent to Speeds Reef, and it’s a case of history repeating.
The pool, which will likely measure 50m x 20m, was first proposed in 2016 while the Lennox-Ballina communities were in the throes of shark fear, with both swimmers and surfers anxious about entering the ocean. A rock pool was considered a safe compromise for ocean swimmers.
It also needs to be pointed out that, the same year the pool was proposed, plastic ‘eco barriers’ designed to repel sharks were installed at Lighthouse Beach, Ballina. They were abandoned after a few months amid concerns from the surfing community about the likelihood of entanglement and drowning. The surfing community wasn't consulted about the installation of the barriers.
To progress the pool, a community group was formed, the Ballina Ocean Pool Committee, and in 2017 they got a shot in the arm with a $50,000 state government grant to finance environmental and engineering reports. From there things moved quickly: in 2017 a marine ecology report was commissioned, similarly a local business impact report, and in 2018 they commissioned UNSW’s Water Research Laboratory to prepare a Coastal Engineering Report.
Mark Hernage is the president of the Ballina branch of the Surfrider Foundation, he led the opposition to the installation of plastic eco barriers at Ballina, and he’s at the forefront of public opposition to the ocean pool, however Hernage wants to make one thing clear.
“We’re not in outright opposition to the pool,” says Mark. “We just haven’t been consulted. Surfrider hasn’t been consulted and nor has LeBa [Lennox Ballina Boardriders].”
“We’d consider surfers to be key stakeholders,” continued Hernage. “So why haven’t they spoken to us?”
“Recently Councillor Jeff Johnson was on Paradise FM talking about how it wouldn’t affect the surf and I just don’t know how he can say that without it being studied.”
Originally, Ballina Ocean Pool Committee chose six possible locations on the rock platform, but they’ve since chosen the most likely location (location #3 in the WRL report - see image below). This would locate the pool midway along the rock platform and at its eastern-most point in the wash zone.
Speeds Reef is a sand-dependant wave, it relies upon longshore drift for sand to pile around the rocks and the wave to break. It can go months, seasons even, when the sand isn’t there and nor is the wave.
One of Mark Hernage's concerns is the effect of backwash on sandflow. It’s well-known that hard structures cause wave scouring and that could stop sand accumulating around the rocks. It’s also possible that backwash could ruin surfing amenity.
The fact is, it’s not immediately obvious what negative effects a pool may have on wave quality at Speeds Reef; coastal processes are complex and the outcomes are often unexpected. As Mark Hernage says, “Do we just trust them, even when they haven’t considered our concerns?”
Councillor Jeff Johnson is adamant there’ll be no negative effects on surfing amenity. “I’m a surfer myself, as are a few people on the [Ballina Ocean Pool] committee,” says Cr Johnson. Asked why they hadn’t approached surfers for their input, Cr Johnson replied with some exasperation: “We asked for input from Shelly Beach Surf Life Saving Club, many people there surf.”
“Also, we did investigate any impacts on the surf zone and it was found to have no impact,” said Cr Johnson. The investigation was the aforementioned Coastal Engineer’s Report and a letter of testimony from Associate Professor Rob Brander at UNSW that states the following:
“I think the chosen location to install the pool is in no way detrimental to any existing physical processes involving breaking waves, alongshore water movement and currents and the transport of sediments. In my opinion, the pool will not lead to any negative environmental impacts and the location is eminently suitable in this regard.”
The Coastal Engineering Report is 129 pages long and presents a seemingly comprehensive analysis of the pool’s impact. However, in the entirety of the report ‘surfing’ is mentioned just three times, and no time does it consider changes to surfing amenity at Speeds Reef. It's simply not accounted for.
Further, when Swellnet contacted Associate Professor Rob Brander, he was adamant that his testimony related solely to physical processes and not to surfing amenity, as it was now being presented. Prof Brander was mortified that his words were being taken out of context. He wasn’t asked about surfing so he didn’t examine it.
Clearly, the lines of communication have been mixed up. Firstly, by speaking to Shelly Beach SLSC, Ballina Council thinks they’ve spoken to surfers, yet the two largest formal surfing organisations on the coast say they haven’t been approached. Secondly, the two investigations were comprehensive and convincing about the lack of effects on coastal processes, yet neither included surfing amenity in their criteria.
When Swellnet next called Cr Johnson he’s in a conciliatory mood. “I think part of this [surfers questioning the pool] comes from how we handled the shark barriers,” admits Cr Johnson. “In hindsight it would have been prudent to make a better effort to speak to surfers.”
Nevertheless he thinks the latest opposition is all part of a political scare campaign. “All our committee love the ocean and are certainly not out to ruin the surf and be disrespectful to any user group,” says Cr Johnson.
Later that day, Swellnet is chatting about the issue to National Surfing Reserves founder Brad Farmer who raises the point that if the area was a Surfing Reserve the council would be bound by law to include surfers in any decision making. The local NSR committee would be the point of contact with each surfing organisation standing behind it.
It’s not the case, however, the Lennox Head NSR stops three kilometres north at Flat Rock, so Speeds Reef is on its own. Farmer understands the surfer’s point of view, of course, but interestingly he uses the same word Cr Johnson does to describe how the surfing community must be feeling.
“Being left in the dark like that, it just reeks of disrespect,” says Farmer.
Postscript: Cr Jeff Johnson will obtain another WRL report on 28th February.