Liberal and Labor lobby for position on dredge purchase

Emergency dredging at the mouth of Brisbane Water, September 2017Emergency dredging at the mouth of Brisbane Water, September 2017

Liberal and Labor councillors are claiming the moral high ground after a motion to take steps to purchase a “super dredge” was defeated at a council meeting on February 26.

Liberal Cr Jilly Pilon has called on the Central Coast Council to take ownership, responsibility and action to fix Brisbane Water channel by buying the dredge.

Labor Cr Richard Mehrtens, while claiming to support the intent of the motion, said: “Committing to buy a dredge is a major decision and one that shouldn’t be taken lightly. “A late-night motion, with no cost or budget plan, doesn’t set a good precedent for future decisions.” Cr Pilon and Cr Greg Best moved the motion that called for Council to note “with alarm the likely closure of the Brisbane Water channel due to mass tidal sand migration”. The motion asked Council to “recognise the imperative of dealing with the issue urgently due to the likely impact on the environment, tourism and flooding risks”.

They called on their fellow councillors to “in principle agree to acquire a suitable sea-going super dredge to deal with the Brisbane Water Channel and estuaries”. The dredge would also be used to service the channel to Tuggerah Lakes at The Entrance. The motion asked for staff to report on suitable dredge options, the acquisition process and budget requirements for 2018-19. Central Coast Ferries owner Mr George Conway addressed the meeting but could not persuade councillors to vote in favour of acquiring a dredge. “Consistently vessels are running aground in the channel,” Mr Conway said. “Masters are having problems where they are grounding on a daily basis and they are in a position where they are frightened to report because they are facing prosecution from the Australian Maritime Safety Authority,” he said.

He said there appeared to be no permanent solution for keeping the channel open even though it was a transport corridor to Sydney and spoke of the anxiety being suffered by his professional ferry masters and those employed by Palm Beach Ferries. “One hundred years ago, they were dredging channels with old technology and we have modern technology able to do the work for modest cost,” he said. “I feel sure there are options for the material to be removed entirely from the channel between Box Head and Half Tide Rocks that could be taken and used to replenish beaches around the Central Coast. “The operation last year removed material from the unnatural channel but it is likely to go back to where it was removed from,” Mr Conway said, calling the NSW Government’s emergency dredging a “band-aid fix”. He said his vessels were also touching bottom daily at the entrance to Woy Woy channel.

Mr Conway said the Ettalong Channel was basically closed at low tide as Palm Beach ferries had to divert to Patonga. “These ferries are bringing prosperity to the area. They are bringing people to Ettalong,” he said. During the debate of the motion, Council director Mr Mike Dowling said the council did not have licences to dredge some of the areas identified. He said the council had made three grant applications to the NSW Government including the purchase of a dredge but there had been “no reply from the State Government”. Mr Dowling said the Brisbane Water channel was a State responsibility. He said the minimum cost to purchase a dredge would be between $12 million and $20 million. “If the resolution directed Council [staff] to purchase a dredge it could be any amount of money depending on the size of the dredge needed to complete the operation,” he said. Mayor Cr Jane Smith said the matter should be deferred for a detailed briefing. “I get the feeling councillors are not across the issues here,” she said.

Cr Smith said the matter of whether the channel was a State or council responsibility remained “in dispute”. “There are letters flying around the place for both sides of the argument,” she said. Cr Best and Pilon lost the vote on the floor and Cr Smith’s suggestion to defer the matter was carried. However, after the meeting, Cr Pilon issued a media release stating that the current situation in the Brisbane Water estuary and the Ettalong channel has resulted in uncertainty for businesses, ferry operators, commuters, fisherman, tourists and residents who used the waterway. “We cannot ignore the adverse effect this issue is having on people’s lives and the economy,” Cr Pilon said. Our choked waterways at Ettalong are affecting tourism, employment, transport and land values on the Coast as well as adding to the flood risk of homes around our waterways,” she said. Cr Pilon, who is a Liberal Councillor, said that NSW Minister for Lands and Forestry, Mr Paul Toole had confirmed, dredging of the Ettalong Channel was the responsibility of Central Coast Council and that the New South Wales Government was not responsible for maintaining local waterways. She said the Ports and Maritime Administration Act 1995, clearly stipulated that as the Central Coast had no commercial ports or state-owned maritime infrastructure, the waterways were the responsibility of local government.

“Our waterways, effectively, are no different to our roads,” she said. “Much like the road system, where we pay for registration and licence fees, there are roads that are a Federal responsibility, roads that are a State responsibility and roads that are a local government responsibility. “It’s been stated by some councillors, that because the Roads and Maritime Services collects boating fees and charges for maritime activities, that the State Government is responsible for dredging and a dredging machine. “That argument is flawed in the same way the State collects fees for road licences and registrations. “Council still has its own local roads it is responsible for just as it has local waterways it is responsible for, including the Ettalong Channel. “The NSW Government has a Coastal Dredging Strategy.

“Twice in the last year, the State Government has provided funds for emergency dredging works at Ettalong.” Cr Pilon said she thanked the State Government for the assistance but it was a “band-aid fix” and Council needed to take additional responsibility. “It is therefore imperative that our Central Coast Council continues to work constructively with the State Government for grants that do exist such as the Rescuing Our Waterways grant which has been available since 2011,” Cr Pilon said. “A huge part of why we find ourselves in the predicament we are in at Ettalong Channel and Brisbane Water is the former Gosford City Council rarely applied and therefore received minimal funding for this periodic dredging work.”

She said a Council-acquired dredge would provide it with full control of its use. “We could ensure waterways are kept open and safe, keep beaches open year round for tourism with a steady flow of replenishment, and boost our tourism industry with sand groynes providing great waves for surfers. “The dredge could be leased to other Councils when not required for our local waterways.” Cr Pilon said Gosford Council had spent a significant sum of money to develop and adopt a comprehensive Coastal Zone Management Plan that included a detailed dredging plan for Brisbane Water out to Box Head in 2009. “Why was this dredging never done?

“It is time to move forward, Central Coast residents are tired of inaction.” Meanwhile, Labor’s Cr Richard Mehrtens said he believed dredging was one of the most important issues facing the Peninsula. “Committing to buy a dredge is a major decision and one that shouldn’t be taken lightly,” Cr Mehrtens said. “I fully support the intent behind the motion moved at Council on Monday. “But with no budget, and no costs laid out in the motion, it would be irresponsible to sign a blank cheque to Council staff,” he said. “The estimate that was given on costs was in excess of $20 million, and that is not an amount of money Council should spend without proper and current advice. “Deferring the motion will give us an opportunity to get answers to important questions, including whether or not purchasing and maintaining a dredge is the right thing for Council to do.

“While the State Government has spent $15.5 million over the last three years along the rest of the NSW coastline, but is unwilling to invest enough money to do it right on the Coast, then I will continue to push the State Government to contribute their fair share,” Cr Mehrtens said. “I support the Council’s decision to apply for NSW Government funding to conduct local dredging, and we should be fighting for every last cent we can get out of this government. “We need to get this issue right, but a late-night motion, with no cost or budget plan, doesn’t set a good precedent for future decisions. “I will continue to fight for this issue, and I look forward to voting in support of a strong and considered motion when it comes back to Council in the near future.”

SOURCE: Central Coast Council Agenda Item 5.2, 26 Feb 2018 Media release, 28 Feb 2018 Richard Mehrtens, Central Coast Council Media release, 2 Mar 2018 Jilly Pilon, Central Coast Council Reporter: Jackie Pearson