EDITORIAL: Shallow channel problem

A NEW state government report into the state of the mouth of the Myall River says the town of Tea Gardens got its name from tannin-rich brown waters that have always flowed into Port Stephens from the river and its lakes to the north.

This same predominance of fresh water - or lack of salinity - has been at the centre of a prolonged debate over water quality in the Myall, which some users say is being seriously degraded by silting at the river's mouth. (See Page 24.)

After winding its way past the Tea Gardens bridge, the Myall swings west before dividing around the vegetated dunes of Corrie Island. A northern channel, entering the harbour at Pindimah, has changed little in recent decades. But an eastern channel - known as the short cut between Corrie Island and Winda Woppa - has become noticeably narrower and shallower and is expected to close completely if no action is taken.

At the same time, the ocean-facing shoreline from Winda Woppa east to Jimmys beach is being steadily eroded, and there is a popular belief that sand being pumped in to save the beach and its houses is soon washed around the corner to become the cause of the problems in the nearby channel.

Residents and tourism operators called on the previous Labor state government to dredge the eastern channel, a push supported by Liberal Port Stephens MP Craig Baumann. Now, however, his government appears reluctant to intervene, and this new report cites a succession of scientific studies that say the popular view is wrong.

The scientists say sand from Jimmys beach is not a significant impact on the eastern channel. They say dredging will not significantly improve water clarity or low salinity, which they say is natural. Nor will it eliminate fish-killing "red spot" disease, which is endemic in many NSW estuaries.

Greens MP John Kay disputes the report's scientific findings but even if the work is not justified on environmental grounds, the Myall is a major recreational waterway, and the eastern channel has traditionally been the popular gateway between the port and the river.

Treat the channel as an issue of economy and amenity and the picture would probably look quite different.

Given its questionable performance so far on election promises to the Hunter, the Coalition should find the $2 million or so to open the channel initially, and the much smaller amount needed for maintenance dredging. Better face the cost now to keep the channel open than find its closure causes problems the scientists did not predict.

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