The waves just keep coming. As I learned about “living shorelines” at an educational event in Fairhope, Alabama, I couldn’t get past the fact that the waves never stop. They were hitting the shore long before we arrived, and the tides will rise and fall long after we’re gone.
That’s a significant problem when you live and work on the coast.
When it comes to “high energy” waves coming off the open ocean, traditional bulkheads and seawalls may be the only practical option. But in many coastal settings with calmer wave action, we can either build a wall or choose life.
Vertical walls of concrete or metal offer real protection against pounding waves, but they’re unnatural. They cut the land, truncate beach access and often lead to erosion in adjacent properties. More importantly, bulkheads eliminate the exchange of critical organic matter within the intertidal zone. That process is essential to keeping our coastal waters economically productive and recreationally attractive.
Nobody wants to lose even an inch of beachfront to erosion, when it comes to property valued by the foot. Sometimes walls simply aren’t the best way to do that.
It’s not every day that we hear of Alabama being a leader at something other than college football. When it comes to innovative alternatives to deal with coastal erosion, Alabama’s living shoreline projects are the national gold standard.
I get it. It doesn’t sound sexy, and you might not be sure what a “living shoreline” actually does.
There’s no set definition of a living shoreline, but it generally includes some sort of permeable breakwater assembly—usually bagged oyster shells or concrete reef structures—that creates a natural harbor able to sustain aquatic and marsh vegetation near the shoreline. Unlike bulkheads and seawalls that deteriorate over time, living shorelines will likely strengthen as plants grow and marine life adheres to wave barriers.
The barriers sap the wave energy that causes erosion without erecting a wall between the land and water. By maintaining the ebb and flow of water along the intertidal zone, plants, birds and fish thrive. Living shorelines also preserve beach access for landowners. Vegetation incorporated on the shore has the capability to absorb runoff chemicals that would otherwise cause nutrient pollution in coastal waters.
While they have plenty of upside, living shorelines aren’t without their challenges.
Proper engineering is critical, especially for smaller-scale residential installations. Like any waterfront project, they have the potential to change the aesthetics and structure of adjacent shoreline. The fastest way to make a critic of living shorelines is for one neighbor to carelessly erode another’s property.
Living shorelines are the type of environmentalism that Alabama’s more-conservative coastal community should embrace and expand. Our coast is an economic engine we must protect, enjoy and use simultaneously.
This isn’t some leftist environmental boondoggle.
Earlier this year, the Alabama Legislature unanimously passed a joint resolution calling on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to issue a nationwide permit for living shorelines. The Legislature expressed a commitment to “the expanded use of living shorelines, to the long-term conservation of Alabama water resources, and to the protection of the Alabama waterfront communities.”
Not only do living shorelines bolster our coastal waters; they are a significant market opportunity for engineers, manufacturers and contractors. Coastal entrepreneurs should easily find a market in developing more attractive reef balls and other concrete wave-attenuation devices. We also have room for process improvements in recycling oyster shells and developing other environmentally friendly components of living shorelines.
Innovative contractors may have an advantage over their competition if they’re correctly able to engineer and install living shorelines, in addition to bulkheads.
With all the political controversy over building walls, here’s one time we should agree that promoting other options might produce a better result.