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Living Shorelines; A Different Approach to Erosion Protection to Improve Aquatic Habitat

Jamestown 4-H Camp Pre-construction
Photo Credit: NOAA

By David O’Brien, Virginia Field Office, Habitat Conservation Division

Protecting estuarine shorelines from erosion due to wind and wave energy has traditionally been accomplished through the use of hardened structures such as vertical sheet bulkheads, stone revetments, groins and sills. But for more than a decade, a softer, more ecologically beneficial approach has been gaining popularity in the Mid-Atlantic region with both public and private waterfront property owners. As techniques have been refined, those with a proven track record have been accepted as viable alternatives to traditional methods of shoreline hardening.  In the right setting, a “living shoreline” can not only provide shoreline protection but help improve water quality and habitat for a variety of terrestrial and aquatic plants and animals. Living shoreline projects use a variety of structural and organic materials, such as wetland plants, submerged aquatic vegetation, oyster reefs, sand fill, and stone. The success and acceptance of living shorelines as the preferred alternative to hardened structures has prompted several state and federal permitting agencies in the Mid-Atlantic region to develop general and regional permits to authorize these projects.  

Jamestown 4-H Camp during construction
Photo Credit: NOAA

Waterfront property owners, non-governmental organizations, along with state and federal agencies have all embraced the use of properly cited and designed living shoreline techniques as a means to protect shorelines and improve aquatic habitat. NOAA’s Habitat Conservation Division (HCD) reviews living shoreline projects to determine whether the conversion of one aquatic habitat type to another is in keeping with our mandate to protect essential fish habitat (EFH) under the Magnuson-Stevens Act.  From HCD’s perspective, the best living shoreline projects improve marginal or degraded habitats to the benefit of our aquatic trust resources.

An example of a living shoreline project resulting in numerous benefits to both the property owner and the aquatic environment was Jamestown 4-H Camp, located along the lower James River in James City County, Virginia.  A 12 ft. high eroding bluff along a portion of the Camp’s shoreline required stabilization to prevent further erosion and loss of forested buffer.  The river bottom was characterized as fine silty sand with a small amount of gravel, common along this reach of the lower James River. The absence of tidal wetland vegetation in the immediate vicinity of the project site presented an opportunity to plant marsh grasses to provide valuable refuge and forage habitat for fisheries with designated EFH for the lower James and their prey.  

Jamestown 4-H Camp Post-construction with Living Shoreline
Photo Credit: NOAA

Due to the high energy conditions at the site, a hybrid approach to a living shoreline was utilized during the project’s design. Given the design constraints, the Camp’s living shoreline included two appropriately sized stone breakwaters to protect the intertidal wetlands, high marsh, and beach areas created behind the structures. In addition to the vegetated and non-vegetated wetlands which provide habitat for NOAA trust resources, the stone breakwaters provide habitat to species which assimilate with reefs or hardened structures, thereby providing additional habitat diversity for the project. 

While habitat trade-offs occur with any shoreline protection project, the incorporation of a living shoreline into the Jamestown 4-H Camp project provides valuable habitat not readily available in this reach of the lower James River.  NOAA trust resources therefore benefit from the habitat improvements this living shoreline project provides.