“Living Shorelines” Will Get Fast Track to Combat Sea Level Rise
As sea levels rise along U.S. coasts, it may soon get easier for people and local governments to obtain federal permits to build what are known as “living shorelines,” natural or nature-based structures designed to protect communities and infrastructure from extreme storms and flooding even as they protect habitat. The
Army Corps of Engineers is considering a new category to its nationwide permits that would allow speedier approval of living shorelines, which include wetlands with sea and marsh grasses, sand dunes, mangroves, and coral reefs.
Currently, it’s much faster for property owners in many parts of the country to get a permit for sea walls, bulkheads and other so-called gray infrastructure than it is to get a permit for construction of nature-based systems.
If the corps moves forward with the new category, though, permits to build living shorelines could be issued in as few as 45 days, instead of 215, a spokesman for the agency said. “The living shoreline piece is a part of what we’re pushing as a nonstructural, nature-based method that is a lot less costly,” said Lt. Gen. Thomas Bostick, who ushered in the proposed permit during his time as chief of the Army Corps of Engineers, before his retirement last week. “It helps us with our environmental focus; it helps us with the endangered species, perhaps. All of that is a natural way that we can reclaim some of our land and take the focus off of expensive infrastructure.”…
…A study by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that about 14 percent of the U.S. coastline is what researchers described as “armored.”
A 2015 report from NOAA on living shorelines noted that if coastal populations continue to increase, and if so-called “shoreline hardening” continues at the current rate, nearly one-third of the contiguous U.S. coastline could have sea walls or other gray infrastructure by 2100.
The agency found evidence that shorelines with intact natural coastal habitats not only see less damage but bounce back more quickly from severe storms.
Studies have shown that living shorelines host greater populations of fish and other organisms crucial for shorebirds and for recreation and commercial fisheries, said Rachel Gittman, a postdoctoral research associate at Northeastern University’s Marine Science Center. Gittman, who spends much of her time in North Carolina, was asked by the Pew Charitable Trusts to analyze the effectiveness of natural shorelines compared to hard infrastructure. The work is part of the foundation’s climate adaptation efforts to improve flood readiness in U.S. communities….
…Some organizations are trying to quantify whether living shorelines cost less to build and can provide the same protection. The Nature Conservancy found a perfect opportunity in Miami-Dade County in South Florida, said Kathy McLeod, director of global risk reduction and resilience at the environmental organization.
There, the county’s aging wastewater plant was under orders to stop dumping waste into the ocean. The Nature Conservancy is studying whether marshes surrounding the low-lying plant can help protect it from storm surge and flooding.
The marshes aren’t just protection for the plant’s $3 billion in upgrades—they’re a part of the massive federal Everglades restoration project.
The Nature Conservancy hopes that what it learns about the project will make it easier for other communities weighing similar projects to move forward with natural systems, McLeod said last week, speaking on a panel about climate adaptation and resilience at the same event as Bostick….
…Despite the massive push for living shorelines, such natural systems may not be appropriate everywhere, Gittman said. But they do give communities options that might supplement hard infrastructure, Gittman said.
“I think it would be naive to say you shouldn’t modify your shorelines, because obviously we’ve built along our shores. We have a lot of infrastructure and communities that we need to protect,” she said. “If you’re talking about a really urban area, you’re probably going to still need other structures for flood protection. Maybe there are places where a sea wall is the only option, maybe it’s a major port, so you really have to have a deep channel.”
She’s working on a chapter of a book, along with engineers and landscape architects, ecologists, and other experts, that will help guide the private sector in designing the living shorelines of the future. Its message is that people can design shorelines that are more dynamic than static, she said.
“What it means is that we need to be more creative in how we stabilize shoreline, and I think we also need to learn a bit more from nature,” she said. “We should be thinking about how to incorporate natural shore protection components. Anywhere where naturally stabilizing features can be incorporated—I think that’s what we need to be thinking about.”