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Living Shorelines Provide Many Benefits - February 28, 2016

                Maryland is a land of transitions; caught between the cold, northern states and the warm, southern states, and ranging from the Appalachian mountains in the west to the salt marshes in the east. While the transitions of warm to cold or mountainous to flat are interesting, there is one area of transition that is often overlooked; shorelines and coasts. These areas mark the boundary between the aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems and perform numerous functions in our ecosystem. In Maryland alone, there are over 7,000 miles of shoreline and coasts in the Chesapeake and Coastal Bays and their winding, bending tributaries, making shoreline habitat invaluable.

                Shorelines are constantly changing, continuously being eroded and built up again by the movement of water, waves, and wind. Normally the deposition of sediments and sand along shorelines helps sustain natural habitats; however, human activities like development or boating channels can ruin this cycle, leaving severely depleted shorelines. Waterfront property owners hoping to stop this shoreline erosion have used numerous methods of mitigating this problem in the past, such as bulkheads and other manmade structures. These methods, while somewhat effective, harden the shoreline and strip it of many of the environmental benefits that they provide. The best way to keep erosion rates low, keep the aesthetics of the area, and provide numerous environmental benefits all at the same time is to install a living shoreline instead of a hardened one.

                A living shoreline is just like it sounds; it is a shoreline that has been reinforced with erosion control methods and native plants. Living shorelines are the result of applying erosion control measures such as fiber coir logs, sills, groins or breakwaters along with adding sand, marsh plants or other natural materials that can help to protect, restore, enhance or create natural shoreline habitat. A living shoreline can have one or more of these erosion control methods on the shoreline or in the water, depending on how high energy the waves tend to be at that location. Native marsh plants, like cordgrass, cattails, and bulrush are planted above the high tide line and help keep erosion under control, provide habitat, and more.

                There are many different environmental benefits from a living shoreline compared to a hardened shoreline or manmade structure.  Living shorelines are more aesthetically pleasing and more natural looking. Similar to hardened shorelines, living shorelines help to reduce shoreline erosion. They also help to prevent or reduce future shoreline erosion by keeping natural processes in play. These natural processes, such as sand deposition and movement, are necessary for the shoreline to stay healthy and replenish itself .The flexibility of a living shoreline as opposed to a hardened one also means that living shorelines are more adaptable to sea level rise and land subsidence. If properly planned, a living shoreline will have space to move further inland as the water levels continue to rise, which is the natural way a shoreline responds to sea level change.

                Another benefit of living shorelines is the addition and enhancement of habitat for fish, reptiles, and other species. Many species such as sea turtles and horseshoe crabs use shores and coastlines as not only resting habitat but also spawning and rearing habitat, so having access to the shoreline is necessary for the continuation of the species. When humans harden the shoreline and make it inaccessible for these creatures, they must find another suitable location for spawning, which can put the animals in danger. Living shorelines provide an open and accessible area for animals to enter the water or come up on land, without having to climb over a manmade structure or put themselves in harm’s way.

                Some of the largest benefits from living shorelines come from the marsh plants used to help stabilize the shoreline and provide habitat. These native marsh plants help to absorb excess nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorous, before they enter the waterways. Excess nitrogen and phosphorous in the water can lead to algal blooms and a switch in the local aquatic vegetation, so keeping these nutrients out of the water is vital. The marsh plants also help to keep sand and other sediments in place, which helps to reduce the shoreline erosion and keep sediments from entering our waterways. By both absorbing excess nutrients and keeping sediment in place, living shorelines are helping to improve water quality as well.

                Living shorelines also provide an energy sink for wave energy. Natural and living shorelines help to absorb wave energy that hits the shores. Manmade or hardened shorelines do not do this, so when waves hit the shoreline, the energy is reflected back into the water as another wave, which can scour the sub-tidal zone and hurt the growth and health of underwater grasses needed for juvenile blue crabs and other aquatic organisms. Manmade and hardened shorelines can even break or flood during storms and other high wave energy events, causing serious damage to the structure, and putting those behind it at risk.

                While both help to provide erosion control, living shorelines provide numerous other benefits to the local environment compared to manmade and hardened shorelines. By replacing hardened shorelines with living shorelines, we can see an improvement in water quality, health for local wildlife and much more, making living shorelines the best decision for waterfront property owners.

 

Harrison Jackson is the former Education Coordinator for the Maryland Coastal Bays Program and current graduate student at Clemson University.

 

The Maryland Coastal Bays Program is a 501 (c)(3) non-profit, your tax deductible donations make it possible for us to continue our work of protecting the Coastal Bays.

 

 



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