How The Dream Waves of The Gold Coast Are Shaped
In Scandinavian folklore, the Sandman sprinkles magical sand in children’s eyes to send them to sleep with beautiful dreams. If you surf then no doubt you dream of beautiful warm water peeling waves, and if you love a long right hander then the sand bottom points of Australia’s Gold Coast are the stuff that dreams are made of. Those dream waves are very real though, and the sand isn’t magical. The man who sprinkles the sand to create what is still sometimes referred to as ‘The Superbank’ is Kim Bowra; surfing’s very own Sandman.
Kim and I are old friends; we studied at university together and then lived around the corner from each other when he was studying for his Masters in Environmental Management at the University of Queensland. He now works for the state governments of New South Wales and Queensland and his official job title is the Project Manager for the Tweed River Entrance Sand Bypass Project – the project that pumps sand onto the Southern Gold Coast beaches and creates the banks that the waves break over. I’ve gone to him for quotes in the past, but never pinned him down for an interview about the work that he and his team do. They work, live and surf within a fairly small geographical radius that is also one of the busiest and most visited surf zones on the planet. The waves are so good in part due to the work that they do, and yet they remain almost completely anonymous. As a firm believer in ‘credit where credit’s due’, on this occasion I wasn’t just speaking to Kim to get the inside line on the sand at Kirra or Snapper, but to shine a spotlight on the people, the science, and the reasons behind these famous Australian surf spots.
Kim and I live in diametrically opposed time zones, so when I called him he was pulled up with a coffee overlooking Kirra on his way into work.
“Your job isn’t just to make the waves good, right…” I asked him as a starter, knowing full well the complexity of his role.
“No, you’re right there! There’s very specific legislation underpinning it, but in short it’s about sand supply and safe passage or navigation to the Tweed River, which is near-enough the state border between New South Wales to the south and Queensland to the north. At the very core of it, that is what the project is here for: Basically to reinstate sand supply at a natural rate to southern Gold Coast beaches and ensure that there’s a safe navigable channel at all times for the Tweed River, and there’s strict parameters around what that is defined as.”
The seeds for this endeavour were sewn 130 years ago. The Tweed River was vital for transport and the development of early industries at the end of the 19th century, however the sand bar at the mouth of the river proved to be a significant navigational hazard to shipping. This stretch of coast is incredibly dynamic, with approximately 500,000 cubic meters of sand being transported north along the coast each year by the combined actions of waves and near-shore ocean currents. Sand would move across the mouth of the river and many ships ran aground and were lost. In the 1890s the riverbanks at the mouth were reinforced with rock walls in an attempt to provide a permanent passage for navigation. The sand continued to move across the river mouth however, so in the 1960s the walls were extended seawards from the coast by almost 400 meters. This blocked the northward flow of sediment up the coast, which became trapped against the southern wall and built up the beach built up the beach along Letitia and Fingal in New South Wales. Meanwhile, the beaches of the southern Gold Coast were being starved of sand. The Gold Coast had been developing since the 1920s when improved transport links with Brisbane caused a wave of development – as close to the waters edge as possible. In 1967, 1972 and 1974 the Gold Coast was hit by a series of strong cyclones, scouring sand from the beaches and leaving coastal developments vulnerable due to the lack of a beach buffer. The sand that should have been sat on the beaches of the Gold Coast was trapped at the northern end of the NSW coastline, and was starting to overflow the rock wall and creep around to again cause a hazard to shipping trying to access the river mouth. The lack of sand along the southern Gold Coast resulted in the incredible wave that broke down Kirra Point for much of the latter half of the 20th century.
“When the project as incepted in 1994, the state government of Queensland were at the point where they were going to take New South Wales to court, because there was no sand coming around other than a small amount as a result of natural bypassing within the coastal sediment cell.” Kim tells me. “Once you get the filling on the updrift, southern, side of the river the sand will naturally migrate around whatever obstruction is there in front of it. When the walls were put there in the early days there would have been a short-lived benefit: “Great, fixed it, look at this we can navigate the entrance, off we go.” The sand then fills up on the southern side, and the same problem returns: the entrance starts shoaling, waves start breaking and there’s a navigational issue for boats. “Ok, we’ve got to extend the breakwaters.” The breakwaters were then extended out further, and they were just continually chasing their tails. Obviously there was a realisation at some point that this plan wasn’t working. They were dealing with it through ad-hoc, smaller dredging campaigns on the NSW side. Meanwhile, Queensland’s bearing the brunt of a lack of natural sand supply coming through the system that would have been naturally replenishing and protecting their beaches , developments and in effect livelihoods. So Queensland were at the point where they were going to take NSW to court and quite quickly the Tweed Sand Bypass concept was initiated.”
Bowra wasn’t involved in those early days – he was still at high school – but as the person who has had oversight over the Tweed Sand Bypass project for the last seven years he now knows it intricately, learning from and improving on the work of his predecessors.
“You can look back at some of the past documentation, which is all publicly available, and the different concepts for solutions… some of them are just absolutely crazy,” he says. “Even nowadays when you think of the progress and evolution of engineering and science, we look at it now and go “wow, I can’t believe they were thinking about stuff like that back then, they were really pushing the envelope in terms of innovation and technology.” I ask him what sort of ideas were put forward. “Things like causeways and bridges over the Tweed River, and creating sediment traps that the sand would flow into and then they would effectively mine the beach to excavate that sand and then truck it over to Queensland to dump it; mobile crane arms that would sit off on some sort of jetty, and so on. The volume of sand moving through this system is absolutely enormous. It’s hard to get your head around it sometimes! There were a few concepts drafted and pen put to paper, but they died a bit of a lonely death and the system that’s in place now that involves a mix of pumping and dredging was the one that was opted for.”
“When the initial phases of the project kicked off, which included a dredging element first while the pumping jetty was being constructed, a lot of sand was injected into the system in one big hit, and then the pumping kicked off not too long after, injecting a lot of sand in that Coolangatta, Snapper, Kirra embayment, and that continued until about 2006. Given the dire experiences of the past, Queensland were quite keen to get as much sand as they could over into the Gold Coast beaches.”
Nowadays, replicating the natural flow of sand that the rock walls on either side of the Tweed River interrupt guides Bowra’s decision-making.
“When we talk about “natural rate”, that’s really important. In a natural setting the sand is moving up in a certain regime. It’s going from south to north but periodically when there’s high energy events, ex-tropical cyclone swells hitting the coast, you see those rates really ramp up. Under calmer conditions like through our winter months when it’s quite subdued, the sand is still moving, but at a much slower rate. Our systems were set up to try and replicate that process as best as they could. Of course you’re never going to be able to replicate what Mother Nature does down to a tee, but it’s designed and meant to be operated in a sense that if sand’s arriving at the jetty, then we’re pumping. We don’t want to be moving sand in big sporadic quantities – that’s not meeting that natural rate of sand supply. That was one of the big lessons learned of this project in the early days. Because this area had experienced such destructive high-energy weather and swell events in the 60s and 70s, when the project was incepted Queensland were adamant that too much sand will never be enough. Lo-and-behold, what followed were a few decades of quite calm periods with no real significant back-to-back East Coast lows or ex-tropical cyclones battering the coast, so all the sand that was removed from the Tweed River via dredging and deposited on the other side just sat there building up on the beaches. This goes back to that natural rate thing – that’s not consistent with a natural rate it’s just a big swath of sand thrown into the receiving environment in one big hit. To give you some numbers around that, it equated to about fourteen years worth of sand supply, delivered in the space of about 3-4 years, injected straight into what is quite a sheltered bay. When you look at the orientation of the coast, from Snapper up to Southern Tugun, it’s basically one big bay. The currents and the sweep moving through is pretty full on, but if you’re putting that volume of sand in an area, it’s quite artificial. That’s what saw basically the demise of Kirra as a surf break through the late 90s and into the early 2000s.”
Whilst Bowra’s job doesn’t have any specific reference to what he terms “surfing amenity”, how, where and when they deliver sand has a huge impact on the pointbreaks of the Southern Gold Coast. And he and most of the team are either surfers or have a real passion for the coastal environment and lifestyle this area affords, so it is something that they’re very aware of.
“There’s a lot of misinformation out there about why Kirra broke the way it did. There’s no denying that it broke bloody brilliantly in its heyday through the 70s, 80s and 90s, but that situation that was a confluence of factors around a lack of sand supply and a lot of successive erosion events so that the full bedrock of Kirra Point was exposed, giving rise to this peeling pointbreak that had just the right angle for the swells that are persistent in this area of the world. Whereas nowadays, because the sand supply has been reinstated, it’s a bit more back to a normal state of affairs. It’s not like we’re going to starve the southern Gold Coast beaches of sand again and allow the beach at Kirra to retreat right back to where that control line was around where the sea wall is and all these foreshore works that have happened. For Kirra to return to what it was in the 70s, 80s and 90s would mean completely switching the system off, severing the sand supply once again. However, in saying that, what we are starting to see in recent years is a realignment of Kirra, slowly but surely, as stubborn as that bank is, she is realigning. We watch, closely.”
Surfing, and the great waves that so many of us focus on, is collateral benefit as far as this project is concerned, I realise. “How do those twin objectives of reinstating sand supply at a natural rate to southern Gold Coast beaches and ensuring that there’s a safe navigable channel at all times for the Tweed River balance one another?” I ask him. I’m curious whether the importance of river traffic has diminished or is the Tweed still important for fishing and sea freight, versus the economic amenity of the surf breaks? Originally the sand supply was about protecting property, infrastructure and economic benefits of tourism, but now that the beaches have been reinstated I’m curious whether optimising surf benefits has developed in importance for the project because of the economic value of surfing to the area?
“If you’re going to look at it in black and white in terms of legislation, they both are as important as one another – there’s not a case of one being more important at one time of the year and vice versa. In saying that, political pressures and community pressures have obviously influenced the focus of those objectives over time.”
Bowra goes on to explain: “Up until 2008, high volume pumping and high volume dredging were occurring each and every year, with quite large quantities [all available to see on the project’s website archives]. What it gave rise to, going back to the question about whether the initial objectives have swayed disproportionately one way or the other over time, is that up until 2008 Queensland had their firm focus around sand supply, and New South Wales were pretty keen to maintain the entrance to the river. That navigability demand was well and truly being upheld because of the dredging every year, but with the beaches being impacted the way they were, they were in this unnatural state where they were just so wide. There’s all these anecdotes of people joking that they had to take a packed lunch to get to the water’s edge. That led the governments to rethink what they were doing with respect to sand supply, which comes back to that natural rate.”
There was an active decision made in 2008 to put a hiatus on dredging and let the southern Gold Coast beaches recover to a more natural state. The natural rate of sand supply up this coast is around the 500,000m3 mark (plus or minus a few thousand, depending on the weather conditions). That figure is a long-term average, which is backed up by a lot of scientific analysis and studies that the team working on the TRESBP undertake every five years both out of professional interest and as required by the legislation.
A dredge vessel has the capacity to relocate 200,000m3 of sand over the course of a couple of weeks, compared to 500,000m3 that moves naturally over twelve months. This is what Bowra refers to as ‘lumpy” delivery. You can’t have a dredge vessel parked off the coast for a whole year delivering small quantities in line with the natural rates because it’s not economically feasible.
“In the early years there was this decision by the states to provide as much sand as we can at any one point in time. On the Letitia [southern/NSW] side there was an estimated 7 million cubic meters of sand captured by the Tweed training walls. Up until 2008 there was a lot of pumping and a lot of dredging happening, in terms of the volume of sand. So then the Gold Coast beaches had to be allowed to recover back to a more natural state. The low hanging fruit was the dredging. Let’s cease dredging, and continue with pumping only. What we saw was a drop off in the quantities being delivered to Queensland each year, and it wasn’t until 2016 that we had a non-compliance of the entrance and had to call a dredge back in to remove around 40,000 cubes from the rivermouth, which is about a month’s worth of pumping. That’s pretty good considering that eight years went by where there was no dredging, just pumping, until we had a non-compliance event. When I say non-compliance it’s quite prescriptive in the legislation about what the adequate depth is for the river entrance.”
Dredging such small amounts is an expensive exercise – there are economies of scale involved and it gets cheaper as more sediment is dredged. In 2017, a dredging contract was let, but this time for a more significant campaign.
What Bowra and his team were seeing through their analysis was that the decision by the state governments to not dredge over the course of those 8 years had led to growth of the broader delta of the entrance – not just the bar (the bar is a feature of an entrance delta, the high berm part that sits in the middle where waves visibly break) but the broader platform or base that gives rise to that bar. “That delta was just growing at a rate of knots” he tells me, “So it was all well and good that a dredge came back in 2017, and cleared the bar of 200,000 odd cubes of sand, but we all knew quite quickly that we were only putting a band-aid on the situation. Dredging needed to be brought back on an annual basis.”
This was a massive decision by the state governments. Dredging had always been a part of the equation; it always will be, but for a variety of reasons and influences the decision was made to put a hiatus on it for a number of years. “At the time, I was leading the charge to bring dredging back into the fore, and to influence and negotiate with two state governments.” Bowra tells me. “My role as project manager means that I’m impartial – I’m here to deliver on the legislative objectives of the project as per the legislation. The team, myself, and the entire operation is 50/50 funded by the governments of New South Wales and Queensland. On the Queensland side they split it again and they charge half of their commitment, so a quarter in total, to the Gold Coast City Council. So whilst in legislation they’re only defined as a funding partner, they still have a position on our working group or our board, and have voting rights and a say as to how things are done. It’s a healthy way to work. We don’t want any argy-bargy between the states and local governments. But it was quite a big undertaking at the time to put this material forward, synthesize the trends and all the data and patterns that we were seeing emerging, and saying “We need to bring dredging back”. The physical sight of a dredge in this area of the world can stir up a range of emotions and attract a lot of attention both for good and poorer reasons, it has the potential for reputational damage for the project and all government parties involved. It took a significant amount of scientific analysis and engineering smarts to negotiate and influence that decision to bring dredging back into the mix again.
The TRESBP team undertook a large “Entrance Management Review” with a view to adopt sustainable practices in sand management with respect to dredging and placement of that sand, specifically for the reinstatement of an annual dredging campaign to work alongside the pumping operation.
“The pumping is here to stay, so we’ve got a good handle on that, but the dredging part of things is quite an undertaking for the Tweed Sand Bypass because up until recently we had such limited areas where we could place the sand. Having realised that the team and I got together and looked at expanding our horizons in terms of where we could put sand. We were so constrained – we could only place the majority of the sand at Duranbah in off and near-shore boxes. We’ve got some boxes [the specific geographical areas where sand can be deposited, not physical boxes] where we can place sand off the back of Snapper, Rainbow, Coolangatta and Kirra, but you don’t want to use those because you upset the amenity of the area. If we start placing large quantums of sand at the back of Rainbow then it starts impacting the way waves refract and approach the coastline, and creates shoaling out the back, it impacts various aspects of beach amenity in the nearshore. So there was a fair bit of coastal science together with surf science that was applied to this thinking. We decided that we needed more deposition areas, and we needed more flexibility as to where we can place this sand. We went ahead and, this sounds quite basic, but we got a couple of new boxes where we could place sand up along Tugun and Bilinga, and further south which is effectively back-passing sand, taking it back to where it came from, along Fingal and Letitia. It took a number of years to get all of that done. There’s certain profiles that were applied and receiving capacities and constraints and so forth, but the idea was to allow us to spread the sand a bit so that we’re not injecting large quantums of sand in a lumpy behaviour right into the back of Snapper or somewhere like that. By being able to leap frog areas and take sand north to Tugun and Bilinga, we were able to allow the immediate receiving environment (the southern Gold Coast beaches) to respond to the pumping rather than having to accommodate the pumping and the dredging in any one big hit.”
The pumping side of the scheme, which takes sand from New South Wales and pumps it beneath the river to Queensland to the Snapper Rocks outlet (predominantly) where it is deposited in the inter-tidal zone, is established and set so that it delivers sand in that natural flow. Where the dredging is concerned, the team have a bit more flexibility in terms of when and where they deposit dredged sand, so I wonder whether when planning these depositions their backgrounds as surfers influence their work.
“In recent years we’ve been able to do some really targeted placement, particularly along Tugun and Bilinga with surf amenity in mind. It can be argued that it is outside the remit of the project, however, if we are already placing sand in an area that provides the opportunity to explore dual benefits in an amenity context such as surfing, then why not? We’re careful not to set the expectation too high with it, because there are numerous constraints and factors beyond our control, be it weather and dredge vessel type for example, but we do put some thought in to it to try and achieve some dual benefit.”
I ask Kim about to what extent can they design waves, and whether they can have much influence over how waves break through how they deposit dredged sand and how they supply, place, or starve stretches of the Coolangatta or Kirra stretch with pumped sand?
“In terms of influencing wave breaking characteristics and surf quality, the project has a massive influence on it. The influence of dredging of the bar in terms of wave quality at Duranbah is probably underestimated in general terms. One of the reasons why Duranbah is such a high quality surf break is because the delta that I spoke about off the Tweed River entrance there has quite a profound influence on the waves as they are approaching the coastline.” He continues, “Obviously you can’t crystal ball too much, but on a shorter timescale and by using all of the wave data sets that we have and all of the bathymetry and hydrographic survey and numerical models that we have at our disposal, wave breaking characteristics can be greatly influenced by the dredging practices and approaches on the entrance. Through the Queensland state government and their partners we have access to a hydraulics lab where they run wave basins and flumes to help quantify wave breaking characteristics, the influence of structures in the coastal environment and the resultant performance. We were actually fortunate enough, just last year, to physically model a couple of different sand placement scenarios and push some waves across it in one of their wave basins to understand what the wave breaking characteristics would be like. The physical model helps to inform a computational model, and vice versa, to further refine and hopefully put into practice; once in the field, monitoring becomes critical to then calibrate everything done in a lab and/or the office. It’s two pronged… Those two approaches compliment each other.”
As Kim points out, surf amenity is a subjective thing. On the southern Gold Coast beaches and point breaks there are every type of surf craft imaginable, then surf clubs, surf schools, beachgoers and tourists. All are vastly different and want different things from the beaches and the waves, but the area caters to this huge range of user groups incredibly well. “When the sand is flowing through at a rate of knots and we’ve got a fully formed bank there is a very strong current and sweep operating along those points. Arguably it’s not conducive to swimming, although those swimmers will tend to tuck in at the inside of the point. Then we have periods when the sand isn’t flowing so fast, say in the spring, and the bays chew out, re align or rotate, a more bay-like feature is formed and the swimming experience is again different, as is the surfing. But we’ve got to deliver the sand that’s naturally moving up the coast across the Tweed River.”
So far we’ve mainly talked about the sand-bottom point breaks that the area is famous for, but Duranbah, on the north side of the Tweed River’s north-side retaining wall, is a shifting, peaky, heavy beach break and a different proposition altogether. The TRESBP office is located on the hill behind Snapper Rocks overlooking Duranbah. “Duranbah doesn’t like a lot of sand.” Bowra tells me. “It likes a deeper offshore area and the delta that mixes the swell up as it approaches and the variable sand bank arrangement. The way in which we place sand on Duranbah beach is well thought out as well. We try to emulate this natural lumpy behaviour so typically we might put 15-20,000m3 on to the beach in any one campaign, and we’ll do two of those per year, putting for example 5,000 in the southern area, 5,000 in the central area, and 5,000 in the northern area. When you look at it, down at the beach view, that gives you these large undulations that allow the waves to run up the beach and come back through. That feeds the rips and gives that variability in the banks as well. Learning from the past, filling Duranbah with vast quantums of sand and profiling the beach so that it’s just completely uniform and flat is not a great way to go. The beach will respond to that by taking the sand off the beach in a uniform fashion and it will produce straight sand bars, basically creating a closeout. I’ve seen that first hand. From a project reputation point of view, and community point of view it’s not a great place to be.”
Beach replenishment at Duranbah is done using temporary pipes that are run across the beach, whereas the continual transfer of sand from the pumping jetty at Letitia out onto the Queensland side is done through four permanent outlets at Snapper Rocks East, Snapper Rocks West, Greenmount and Kirra. “Snapper Rocks East, which is just south of Froggies beach, is the one that is used 99% of the time. In the time since I’ve been the project manager we haven’t used the other outlets at all. Snapper Rocks West was used once back in 2005. I guess at the time when the system was designed it was envisaged that Greenmount, Rainbow and Coolangatta would need periodic replenishment because Snapper Rocks East outlet wouldn’t provide that feed of sand. Mother Nature does a great job at naturally dispersing the sand though, so putting it just immediately up-drift of the receiving environment is great for the down-drift beaches”
Whilst Bowra and his team have control over where they’re placing the sand, they don’t have any control over the natural flow of sand that’s arriving at the jetty pumping system on the south side of the river. If they’re pumping what’s arriving then they’re maintaining that natural rate of sediment transport. Anything that they don’t pump will simply be building up to create a future problem for them, potentially moving out on to the river entrance and then needing to be dredged later and moved in that more problematic “lumpy” manner.
“Yes we can push the button and start pumping sand when we like – although we can only push the button when sand’s there, of course. We are committed to delivering what’s arriving at the jetty in a natural sense. By delivering it to the back of Snapper it’s then dispersed down the line to Rainbow, Greenmount and Coolangatta. A really good indicator for us is that when we do have a high-energy event come through, we watch Froggies. Froggies is the little cove beach between Snapper and Duranbah and Quensland’s southernmost beach. A lot of sand gets ripped out of Froggies beach so when it’s devoid of sand there you’ve typically got a bit of a hole behind Snapper because Froggies needs to fill back up before Snapper will come back. You’ve got to fill the empty bucket immediately south of Snapper before the banks starts forming again.”
The team responsible have a huge amount of data at their disposal, but I’m curious as to how that balances with anecdotal evidence, gathered through their own daily observations and experiences, or those of their community representatives. They collect met-ocean data, using wave buoys and other instrumentation attached to the jetty. “Our hydrographic survey programme is probably the most intensive of anywhere in the Southern Hemisphere. If we don’t know what’s happening beneath the sea’s surface then we can’t make any decisions. We know when the sand is arriving at the jetty, and the levels of the jetty depths are checked every other day, we get the density of the sand in real time, and the system will effectively turn itself off when it’s not reaching a certain density, so we can detect when it would just be pumping water. The only hydrographic program that would rival ours would be the Gold Coast City Council’s, who are one of our project partners. They feed us their data and vice versa. With all that data we’re doing our respective numerical modelling, we’re forecasting sediment transport rates along Letitia Spit and comparing that against the actual volumes that are pumped on any week or month. We’re doing these constant checks and balances to make sure that the natural rate of sand supply is consistent with what our data sets are showing us as well. The hydrographic survey is the complete foundation of everything that we do. It’s a great evidence base, but also you can’t discount the observational aspects as well, and the feedback that you’re getting from the community.
Without that input and feedback from the local community, alongside spending time checking the beaches ourselves, we would be missing information that is equally relevant and important to that of our survey. The likes of Wayne Bartholomew, Peter Turner and other well respected local boardriders (Jay Phillips and Sheldon Simkus, amongst others) all are a wealth of knowledge and a current source of information for us.”
The Tweed River Entrance Sand Bypassing Project is a significant and expensive operation, and its objectives are entirely the result of man-made manipulation of the coastline. I ask Kim if there is any way to rewind the clock and achieve that ‘natural flow of sand’ that their current efforts are built around, by returning the coast to its natural state and ceasing to manage it.
“If this area was going to be returned to a completely natural state that would involve removing the Tweed River training walls. Completely. Removing those protective measures the Queensland state and local governments have developed over the years. Removing the rock walls and protective structures. You’d be sacrificing Duranbah as a useable beach. It’s not a safe swimming beach on any given day – it really is a surfer’s beach. If you remove the walls, you’re basically sacrificing the navigability and usage of the river entrance and therefore all of the river and coastal recreational boating and maritime businesses as well.” It seems therefore that the TRESBP is here to stay, perpetually. In the time since those rock walls were run out along the banks of the Tweed River, so much infrastructure has been built to adapt to and manage the change to the sediment transport along the coast of the southern Gold Coast, that it would be nigh-on impossible to undo. This is now the system.
It’s no stretch to say that Bowra and his colleagues are a critical component in surfing and the economy that it drives on the southern Gold Coast. And yet, they are almost completely anonymous. It certainly isn’t the case that they are recognised and regarded for their work by the local surf community at large – there is no golden pass when they paddle out for a surf. The other side of that, is that by remaining anonymous they aren’t subjected to unsolicited advice and opinions on where they should be placing sand. I wonder how they deal with those potential frustrations on a personal level?
“We’re not recognisable faces by any means. The people who are familiar with us, and have been involved with the project since basically day one, are the people who come to the community meetings and the community reps who engage with the project and follow what’s happening on the project website. They may recognise our faces from time to time. But there are no waves offered to us or anything like that. We get just as frustrated as every other Joe Blogs out there. It’s easy to paddle out and not get a single wave at any of the famed spots, but that’s all good – it’s how it should be. There’s no special treatment required, we do it for the love of our work.”
Whilst Bowra and his colleagues don’t have a red carpet rolled out for them by local surfers when a swell hits, he still finds the work hugely rewarding. The project’s focus is fairly discrete and the benefits to local surfers are largely a by-product, albeit a very considered by-product. “I take a lot of pride in what I do and I am a local user of the area with my family. I love the surfing aspect. I’ve been working on this project for seven-odd years and before that I was involved with it for about seven years at arm’s length with the local council. I studied it at university too, so to be sitting in the top management role of the project… sometimes I pinch myself and say to myself “how amazing is this?” From my academic days right through all of my professional experiences, to land where I am now and not feel like I am going to work on any given day is a pretty amazing feeling.” To his friends and family, this is no surprise. Whether or not having his finger on “the button for the Superbank” both literally and metaphorically was his end goal from the get-go, it is the obvious culmination of everything that he has done academically and professionally over the last two decades. I’ve known Kim since we studied together at Plymouth University’s School of Biological and Marine Science (UK), after which he worked in international maritime construction jobs for a while, moving into environmental consulting roles which had a heavy coastal focus before returning to Australia to study for a Masters in Environmental Management majoring in coastal processes at the University of Queensland. His focus has always been on coastal management, and there was never any doubt that he would end up back in Australia, either on the coast of South East Queensland or Northern New South Wales. He’s ended up working in one, and living in the other, managing to blur the lines between work and pleasure.
Over the course of our conversation, and our preceding message thread, I’d mentioned The Superbank several times. Bowra’s quick to pull me up on this; strictly speaking, The Superbank only existed for a short period of time, around 2006, when sand supply was at its absolute maximum. The Coolangatta beaches were incredibly wide and the wave at Kirra was gone. Through that period a single sand bank effectively ran from Snapper Rocks through to Big Groyne at Kirra. Local surfer Damon Harvey was documented riding a wave all the way through from the back of Snapper to the Pizza Hut at Kirra – a huge distance, and a feat and opportunity that would probably be hard to replicate nowadays. But now that the beaches have recovered to a more natural state, the bank is somewhat disjointed and there are distinct waves between Snapper and Kirra. The odd day still comes around when a lucky few surfers can link up incredibly long rides, but it’s not the same as that period in the first decade of the millennium. But then when one door closes another one opens, and these days Kirra is making a comeback, just perhaps with a new look, and during the big cyclone swells it’s the star of the show.
The team at the TRESBP have historic photos and a couple of period hydrographic surveys that show a full sandy stretch of beach at Kirra and the wave breaking further out. They often show these photos and data to surfers who come by their office, talking them through why the wave at the Kirra of the 70s-90s that has lived so long in the memory, was actually an unnatural scenario. The only way that Kirra will once again grind down the edge of the seawall by the side of the road is if the system is turned off and the training walls on either bank of the Tweed River are left in place, starving the Southern Gold Coast of sand and allowing the rivermouth to choke with sand. Bowra doesn’t believe that there is any real appetite for that scenario to return. Their current regime is designed to meet the project’s targets whilst delivering optimum secondary benefits; by dredging and then targeting where that sand is placed they can avoid negative scenarios such as a huge amount of sand getting stuck at Kirra, instead placing it further up the coast to create or improve other surf breaks.
“It’s insanely crowded all the time at Snapper. The only slight reprieve is when school holidays finish up and the domestic travellers go back to their homes. The placement of sand at Tugun and Bilinga, from a project point of view, made complete sense to us outside of any benefits it may provide to any local surfers.” Bowra told me, about their placement of dredged sand further up the coast. “In talking with our community reps it was certainly recognised that it could potentially help to alleviate pressure on the southern gold coast points. The Gold Coast city council’s last big dredging and nourishment campaign from Palm Beach through to the Surfer’s Paradise area was a great example for us. They removed around 3 million cubic metres from offshore sand deposits and placed that near-shore in very focused locations, which very much had a strong surfing focus. It was also coastal protection, but it was recognised that there was a dual benefit to be had there with minimal added expense. The attention that got internationally was just amazing. I had surfed it first hand so I knew how good it was. You could literally follow that dredge around and the waves that it was producing at the time due to the prevailing conditions were just incredible. Like, A-grade beach breaks that were a direct result of the way that this sand was being placed. That campaign had a lot more sand to use than we do, however. We’re talking 40, 50, 60 thousand cubic meters of sand per campaign, where they had a couple of million to play with.”
Despite the more modest scale of the TRESBP depositions at Tugun and Bilinga, Bowra tells me that the team are taking a long-term view on it. They believe that they’re creating a solid base by repeatedly placing sand in the same places, and at least for a short period of time will have some influence on the way, waves shoal across and around them.
Speaking of the future, I am curious to get Kim’s take on how he sees the climate and ecological emergency impacting his work. He tells me about the various studies being conducted into the influence of climate change on sediment budgets, and how changes to sand supply and elevated sea levels might impact active beach profiles and threaten established dune systems.
“A lot of this stuff will only come into effect years down the line, after I’ve moved on and I’m greyer and looking back at this project and seeing how things are running. The science at the moment is pointing to longer-term trends and changes in wave direction that are going to have massive influences on sediment budgets and transfer regimes.”
In terms of an increased frequency in high impact storms and high-energy events, the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) also plays a huge role. In La Niña years, the dominant ENSO effect is operating and sediment transport rates are somewhat higher, with more unseasonal swells arriving and from slightly different directions and for longer durations.
“I’ve lived here for 14 years now and used to come here on holiday as a kid,” Bowra tells me, “In that time it’s been pretty mild and I’ve not witnessed anything of crazy significance. We get the east coast lows, and the ex-tropical cyclone swells that dominate headlines, but when I look at those more active decades of the late 60’s and 70’s, we’ve experienced nothing like that recently. We haven’t had five back-to-back East Coast lows and ex-tropical cyclones just hammering this coastline. So, I feel very junior in my experience to what this area of the world has experienced from natural weather events. It’s really valuable when you talk to the likes of Wayne Bartholomew and other committee members who have lived in this area of the world for their whole life, hearing about what they observed in their youth and relating it to what’s happening now.”
With the climate emergency already impacting Australia so seriously and visibly in recent years, I try to finish our conversation on a less grave note. We’ve been friends for two decades and this conversation was as much a chat between friends as it was an interview; whilst Kim’s been the consummate professional throughout, my final question plays on the fact that he’s talking to a mate and perhaps doesn’t have his full guard up. I know that a team has to be sent out fairly regularly to empty the traps at the pumping station of all of the weird and wonderful objects that get sucked up the pipes as well as the sand. I ask what the strangest thing they’ve found is. “A dildo” is his instant response. “I should clarify that I’m not the one physically checking and emptying those traps – daily on-site monitoring is carried out by our site operations staff. A lot of things end up getting sucked up by the pumping station, though: Go-pro cameras that are still running, plenty of golf balls, flippers, surfboard fins. But seriously, a dildo came through once.” Someone on Australia’s east coast must be missing that, and on that lighter note, we say our so-longs so that Kim can drive the last few minutes to the TRESBP office overlooking Duranbah to start work for the day.
I maintain that Kim Bowra and his team, including operational staff and those who came before them, have some of the most important and influential jobs in surfing in Australia. But it’s a strange job, that will exist in perpetuity because of a short-sighted decision several decades ago to build some walls that interrupted a natural process so comprehensively. When boiled right back, his job is to artificially recreate the natural system that existed before, and it costs the citizens of New South Wales and Queensland millions of dollars of taxpayer’s money every year to do that and to nullify those interruptions. But as surfers, when any of us see a photo of a Gold Coast point break perfection, it all seems well worth it. And if you find yourself locked into one of those perfect waves, you know who to thank.
Kim Bowra would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the lands on which the TRESBP operates, and pay his respects to elders past , present and emerging.
He also wishes to acknowledge and celebrate the tireless effort applied by his colleagues, current and former. The TRESBP is by no means an individual affair, and requires a collective effort from operational staff at the jetty, interstate partners and the local community.