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Living Shorelines

May 23, 2012 07:25PM ● By Anonymous

Residents of Southdown Shores, a 130-home community that owned the property, knew something had to be done. Some wanted to replace the bulkheads; others, to try an approach known as “living shorelines.”

In the end, the latter won, thanks to the eventual, nearly unanimous consent of the community and funding from the Chesapeake Bay Trust, a nonprofit, grant-making organization established by the Maryland General Assembly in 1985 to promote and protect the Bay.

“We’d been thinking of doing this for five years but we had to get funding,” says Bob Murphy, a marine biologist and board member of the community association, of the multi-step project that involved removing the bulkheads, installing offshore breakwaters, grading the beach, and planting native grasses.

Maryland is the first, and so far only, state to mandate living shorelines, an erosion control technique long favored by environmentalists. The state department of the environment administers the Living Shorelines Protection Act of 2008, which requires nonstructural stabilization measures on public and private property, if possible.

The three types of structural material most likely to be found along shorelines are bulkheads (wood or concrete vertical structures), revetments (engineered rocks/boulders) and rip rap (stone, concrete chunks and bricks). The law does not ban the use of these “hardened” materials; a waiver can be obtained, for a fee.

Experts date the living shoreline technique to 1970s Maryland, developed as an alternative to structural methods that address erosion but also harm habitats for fish, birds, and crabs. In living shorelines, erosion control and habitat restoration are dual goals.

A number of different materials may be used separately or in combination, from replacing sand and planting grasses to, even, using stone in breakwaters, or fills, designed so that fish can get into the restored and newly created habitats.

At Southdown Shores, for example, Murphy says that “plants alone would not have been enough to stabilize the shoreline. We put in low stone fills that are submerged at high tide.”

According to Kevin Smith, assistant director of habitat restoration and conservation, in the state natural resources department, living shoreline projects are site-specific.

“It depends on the conditions at the site—a creek may have low wave energy versus the Chesapeake Bay, a high energy environment,” he says. “And what you are protecting. If it’s a house or a road, you might want more structural components.”

The Chesapeake Bay Trust is a leader in the technique. In partnership with the state environment department and the federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), it has been financing and overseeing them throughout Maryland for the past 10 years.

It wasn’t surprising, then, that the Trust was chosen to receive a $3-million federal stimulus grant for seven water-related projects—six of them living shorelines. (The seventh: flood prevention in a Prince George’s County town.)

Funded through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state environment department, the six living shoreline projects were completed by 2010. They ranged from removing bulkheads and stone revetments to planting marsh vegetation.  

At Franklin Manor, a 500-home community in Churchton, Anne Arundel County, that owns almost a half-mile of Chesapeake Bay waterfront, the shoreline had eroded to within 60 feet of the nearest houses.

“The erosion rate was one foot per year. It was a substantial threat to the residences,” says Erik Michelsen, a Franklin Manor board member and executive director of the South River Federation, a nonprofit watershed protection organization.

The board spent a year looking at the options, which boiled down to either a revetment or a living shoreline, and convincing the community to choose the latter. An important factor was funding.  Revetments don’t get grants; living shorelines do.

“Money has followed the [living shorelines] concept. We couldn’t have done it without the Trust’s grant,” Michelsen says of a project that entailed installing stone breakwaters 80 feet offshore to diffuse the wave energy, along with sand fill and native plants.

Likewise, Murphy, of Southdown Shores, says the community could have replaced the bulkheads as an already-existing feature, but would not have gotten funding to do so. “No one’s giving money for bulkheads,” he says.

While experts have long encouraged living shorelines, public acceptance has been slower in coming. With an estimated 95 percent of the Bay shoreline in private hands, that acceptance is crucial to success.

Davis picks 2008, the year of the state law, as the turning point. By then, enough projects were on the ground for the public to view. It didn’t hurt that contractors, sensing a market demand, began doing them. Now, the Trust often gets inquiries from private land-owners for recommendations, says Davis, whose funding goes primarily to community groups and local governments.

“We often look for sites with an element of public engagement, so people can go and see,” she says.

Rich Takacs has a different viewpoint. The state law caused “a lot of concern. People thought they’d be forced down a path they didn’t want,” says Takacs, restoration coordinator at the NOAA Restoration Center, in Annapolis, who works with the Trust on living shoreline projects.

Unlike the state, the federal government does not have a mandate to regulate restoration. But federal permits are required for all shorelines projects, and NOAA promotes living shorelines via funding. Almost $1-million in federal funding is currently available for eligible projects in Maryland and Virginia.
Numerous studies over the past 10-plus years have examined living shorelines’ effectiveness. Smith says the state natural resources department regularly revisits past projects and finds that most are still functioning as intended. The six stimulus-funded projects are being evaluated now, the results due in late-2012, the earliest timeframe given the growth rate of the grasses.

No one is saying that traditional methods don’t work. They do, says Takacs. “It’s just that there is a better way to allow for more natural shoreline management.”

Smith makes the same point. “Hardened shorelines can be excellent at stopping erosion, if done correctly. They can also have a deleterious effect on adjacent habitat even if done correctly,” he says.

As for cost, a main objection to living shorelines, Smith acknowledges that such projects may be more expensive than traditional methods. But it’s difficult, if not impossible, to quantify.

“You are including habitat features that aren’t in standard projects,” he says. “But you are also creating a more natural environment.”

Both Michelsen, of Franklin Manor, and Murphy, of Southdown Shores, praise their projects. At the former, the erosion area is stable except for one section that may need additional work. “People walk their pets and stroll along the shoreline,” says Michelsen. “Most folks are satisfied.”

The Southdown Shores project survived two major storms last fall without damage. By removing the bulkheads, a beach was created, so the community gained land. The marsh grasses behind the beach are filling in. There seem to be more fish.

“It was the right project for our community,” says Murphy.