By: Trevor Mattera and Emily Bialowas, University of New Hampshire

Hartford, CT – On December 1st and 2nd, while our global leaders were meeting in Paris, France at the UN Climate Change Conference, UNH graduate students Emily Bialowas and Trevor Mattera and several other NHCAW members were in Hartford, Connecticut attending the first national living shorelines technology transfer meeting and regional workshop. Co-hosted by Restore America’s Estuaries (RAE) and the Connecticut Institute for Resilience and Climate Adaptation (CIRCA), this two-day conference brought together scientists, coastal managers, engineers, consultants, and academics interested in living shorelines. In this blog post, Emily and Trevor reflect on what they learned.

As UNH graduate students focusing on coastal resiliency in New Hampshire, we were excited by what we learned about this still relatively new approach to shoreline adaptation and the examples from other places that show what is possible for the future of New Hampshire’s coasts.

What is a Living Shoreline Approach?

We learned that a living shoreline, also referred to as a soft shoreline or green infrastructure, is an adaptive approach to coastal resilience that uses natural, coastal resources and habitats, like wetland vegetation and oyster reefs, to stabilize a shoreline and protect it flooding or storm surge. In addition to an all-natural approach, a hybrid approach can be used that combines these natural elements with hardened structures, such as stone sills or breakwaters to allow the natural resources to establish in high energy areas. A living shoreline absorbs wave energy, prevents coastal erosion, and its natural elements offer water quality and wildlife benefits that traditional structures like seawalls and bulkheads do not.

A living shoreline at Pine Knoll Shores, NC. Photo from Great American Adaptation Road Trip.

On Day 1 of the conference, we heard presentations from experts on topics surrounding living shorelines on the latest science, policy, community engagement, and innovative financing applicable to many sites across the country.

We were also excited to find out about the Living Shoreline Academy (LSA), a new website to exchange and advance information about living shorelines and their implementation. Developed by RAE and the North Carolina Coastal Federation and funded by the EPA, the site will offer a database and searchable map of current living shoreline projects, catalogues of resources and literature, and online learning modules.

Snapshot of the Living Shorelines Academy website.

On Day 2, participants broke into six groups for presentations and workshops about regionally specific barriers to implementing living shorelines and their solutions. Our Northeast regional group – classified as Maine to New York – had the most participants (probably because we were in Connecticut). We explored techniques and challenges associated with the use of salt marshes, oyster reefs, coastal bank engineering, and dune restoration. At the end of the day, we all came back together as a full group to share the progress from each region’s workshop.

Our Favorite Parts

Trevor: I was very impressed with the first set of presentations on the first day showcasing the science behind living shorelines and their effectiveness as an approach to coastal protection. Through photos like those included here from Dr. Rachel Gittman, I learned that not only can living shorelines do the job of a traditional seawall but in many cases they can do it better. Whereas hard infrastructure increases erosion and requires costly maintenance and updating, a living shoreline generally requires low to moderate maintenance and stabilizes the shoreline while naturally adapting to sea-level rise.

Comparison of a bulkhead (top) and a living shoreline (bottom) within 500ft of each other along the coast of NC, before and after Hurricane Irene. Photo by Rachel Gittman (c) 2015, used by permission.

I was most excited by the overarching message from the outreach session, especially from Connecticut Sea Grant’s Juliana Barrett’s presentation: people need to want living shorelines. Proponents of Living Shorelines are struggling against an ingrained belief that we have to separate ourselves from the water behind a wall and this separation will keep us safe from the next storm, when actually it’s the other way around. Our coastal communities are safer when we reconnect the land to the water using methods that provide both better protection and additional ecosystem benefits. In order to do this, it is necessary to change people’s misconceptions. We need to show property owners that these approaches work and can be aesthetically pleasing. We need to educate developers about best practices to create living shorelines. And, we need to demonstrate to town planners and coastal managers that these solutions will save money in the long run, while also storing carbon and supporting fish populations. I am confident we’ll start seeing more living shorelines once people want them, instead of resorting to another wall or bulkhead.

Emily: I was most impressed by the oyster reef projects in the San Francisco Bay Estuary, on the North Carolina coast, and in Boston Harbor. Oysters can be placed in bags of oyster shells that are put in the water near the shore, or they can be placed in muddy estuaries. Oyster reefs absorb wave energy before it reaches the shore. They also improve water quality by removing excess nitrogen and phosphorous. At each project site, the oysters grew and matured after a few years. In fact, these oysters can build on themselves, growing the reef higher, sometimes faster than sea-level rise. This growth is a key feature of oyster reefs that allows them to be effective living shoreline techniques. In order to protect our shorelines, we need resilient barriers that keep up with the pace of sea-level rise. What I found so impressive was how quickly and easily these reefs become established and transform the shore physically and ecologically. The challenge seems mostly to be a matter of finding an appropriate location and getting the project done. In her Green Harbors project, Anamarija Frankic of UMass Boston has worked with her students to establish oyster reefs on shorelines throughout Massachusetts. The projects she shared showed that in a span of a few years, they have been able to begin restoring the habitat in parts of Boston Harbor, while improving the water quality and protecting against sea-level rise in areas that are extremely vulnerable.

Installing oyster castles and shell bags as a hybrid breakwater at the DuPont Nature Center in Milford, DE. Photo by Partnership for the Delaware Estuary (c) 2015, used by permission.

At the conference, many of us were interested in how to implement and finance living shorelines beyond the pilot projects we learned about in the presentations. The conference included representatives from insurance and finance industries who spoke on a panel about how to finance living shorelines. All panelists agreed that the first step for financing is public understanding of the value of living shorelines. One idea that I thought was compelling was to finance living shoreline projects similarly to how stormwater projects are financed in some communities. A community chooses to protect itself through a living shoreline, and its residents pay a small fee for this protection, possibly through a utility bill they already pay. However, the discussion highlighted that private capital will only be an option when communities see the value of living shorelines and demand them.

Adaptation: The future of NH’s coasts

This conference showcased many innovative and exciting approaches for coastal resiliency through the use of living shorelines. While New Hampshire and other Northeast states have been slower than other parts of the country to adopt these new techniques, there is a growing regional movement to see them implemented along our coasts. With greater outreach and easily accessible information, for example from NHCAW workshops and through sites such as the LSA, there is a good chance more of our shorelines will be living ones.

All of the presentations in .pdf form, the final agenda, and a list of the event’s sponsors and exhibitors can be found on the Restore America’s Estuaries website. Further information on living shorelines can be found on the NOAA Restoration Center website.