Living Shorelines: 11 Things (2023) You Need to Know

Humans are often liable to harden the shoreline or “stabilize” it through the installation of artificial structures like concrete or steel walls, riprap borders, large stones, or boulders – not through living shorelines.

Yet, stabilizing and protecting the shore is much simpler than this.

Really, it comes down to imitating nature.

This is where living shorelines come into play — also called nature-based, green, or soft shorelines.

Understanding how to care for a living shoreline is both an innovative and cost-effective way to maintain the coast.

Here’s what you should know.

1. What is a living shoreline?

A living shoreline is a protected, stabilized, coastal edge that’s made of natural materials like plants, sand, or rock.

It is distinct from a concrete seawall or other hard structure because it grows over time.

This is because it doesn’t impede the growth of plants and animals that live there.

Instead, natural infrastructure solutions provide wildlife habitats and natural resilience to communities that are located near water.

2. Where can I see living shorelines?

Living shorelines are not normally on the beach where the open ocean is.

Instead, they would replace the area where aging structures reside.

These structures could include old docks or boat launches.

If you have a property on the water, you may consider a living shoreline near your waterfront home.

3. What are the main benefits of living shorelines?

bulletThey are attractive

bulletThey are practical and low maintenance

bulletThey add focal points for people to gather around

bulletThey service the environment by purifying water, buffering floods, reducing erosion, storing carbon, and attracting wildlife to natural habitat

bulletThey perform better during storms than hard shorelines

bulletThey support fish and other creatures

4. How much do living shorelines cost?

Living shorelines not only come with numerous benefits, but they also cost less than hard shorelines when it comes to both installation and maintenance.

Installing a living shoreline costs anywhere from $1,000 to $5,000 per linear foot.

Annually, the maintenance of living shorelines will cost $100 per linear foot.

5. Who can help me create a living shoreline?

If you’re a property owner who lives on the water, it’s likely that you can create some simple elements of a living shoreline on your own.

However, if you’re planning a larger and more complex project, then this may require more advanced expertise.

In this case, we recommend the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as a resource.

You should also consult a professional who understands the proper permits and approvals you’ll need to transform a shoreline.

And it’s vital to understand how to restore local habitats.

6. What are the steps to create a living shoreline?

The main steps to planning and implementing a living shoreline include:

bulletSite analysis

The very first step is conducting a site analysis to determine whether it’s appropriate to transform the area in question.

To properly evaluate the site, you should take into consideration the following factors:

  1. Bank erosion rate
  2. Elevation
  3. Wave energy
  4. Prevailing winds
  5. Wave direction
  6. Vegetation
  7. Soil type

Proper site analysis lays the foundation for the design of living shorelines.

bulletPermit approval and legal compliance

If you thought there were a lot of permits for construction, wait until you try modifying the shoreline.

Often, you’ll see federal, state, and local regulations come into play.

Make sure you do your research and apply for all necessary permits.

These should be done in advance of your work.

bulletSite preparation

After you’ve gotten your permits, you should move on to site preparation.

This is the point in the process where you clear unstable trees, remove debris, or demolish failing seawalls and bulkheads that you can easily remove.

Additionally, you should always identify and address any runoff issues before material installation.

bulletInstallation

The living shoreline treatments you’ll be “installing” include…

  1. Planting riparian, march, and submerged aquatic vegetation
  2. Installing organic materials like bio-logs and organic fiber mats
  3. Constructing oyster reefs or living breakwaters

bulletPost-construction monitoring and maintenance

All living shorelines require some maintenance.

You must continue to monitor the site after you’ve modified it.

This will let you know where you’ve successfully restored the coastal habitat.

Here are the primary maintenance activities:

  1. Debris removal
  2. Replanting vegetation
  3. Adding more sand fill
  4. Ensuring the organic and structural materials remain in place
  5. Continuing to stabilize the shoreline

7. What are some examples of living shorelines?

Natural shorelines are often found in lower-energy environments.

For example, a marsh and oyster reef are examples of living shorelines.

8. What are the main types of shorelines?

bulletBedrock

There are several pros to having a bedrock shore.

These shorelines are very stable and resistant to erosion.

However, despite their resilience, they aren’t living shorelines.

Often, any vegetation that does exist is very fragile, so you’ll need to be careful to avoid stomping on anything delicate.

Bedrock shorelines are also more likely to have invasive plant species than other shores, so keep that in mind while you’re planting anything.

That said, they’re often great for development or landscaping projects, which is a bonus!

bulletSand

When you think of a shoreline, this is most likely what you think of.

The sandy beach!

Unfortunately, sandy beaches are vulnerable and human overuse has put them in even worse shape.

If you have access to a sandy beach, there are a few ways that you can protect it.

You can create designated pathways to cross sandy areas so not all of the sand is being disrupted every single time someone is crossing to the water.

Additionally, this will help you to prevent plants from getting trampled when sand is displaced.

Sandy beaches are also good candidates for living shorelines because they can be revitalized with the right plants.

Planting vegetation will also help to reduce erosion while also expanding the size and stability of dune areas.

Larger dune areas will increase the shoreline habitats available for at-risk birds and fish.

bulletCobble

When cobble exists on a shoreline, look out!

This is typically a high-energy beach with lots of waves.

These rocks or boulders will act like armor for the shoreline and protect it from the impact of the water.

Don’t remove the cobbles from the beach because they act like shoreline protection.

Additionally, do not disturb natural vegetation like beach logs or fallen trees from the shore as these can act as a natural wall.

Furthermore, anything that is naturally found on the beach is likely an important part of its ecosystem.

bulletCoastal wetlands

Wetlands form when shore areas are periodically flooded, and they provide habitats for native fish populations.

Yet, coastal wetlands are being lost at an alarming rate, especially because of urban development.

If you have a coastal wetland on or near your land, don’t remove it!

Natural vegetation is critical to both the health of the overall ecosystem and the quality of the water.

And as tempting as it may be, a dock or boat slip can degrade water quality and fish habitat.

These contribute to a hardened shoreline.

You should also be sure to maintain your private septic system.

Otherwise, it can pollute the water.

bulletEstuaries

Estuaries are “river mouths” where rivers meet lakes or oceans.

The shorelines created by estuaries are both unique and highly sensitive to human activity.

These shores also have a high risk of flooding due to rainwater flowing down the river into the bay/lake or vice versa.

Waves from the bay can wash right into the channel.

If you have an estuary on your near your land, leave it be.

Don’t build any channels (even if it’s tempting).

You also shouldn’t remove any vegetation as this can cause damage to the ecosystem and possibly your property long-term through an increased flooding risk.

If you can avoid it, don’t use fertilizer either because it can promote the growth of algae.

9. How is a shoreline different from a beach?

The shore is a wider fringe that is geologically modified by the action of the body of water both past and present.

The beach is at the edge of the shore. It represents the intertidal zone where there is one.

10. Why should you bother maintaining or restoring your shoreline?

Owning a waterfront property is a big deal.

You likely paid a pretty penny for your shoreline, so why not take care of it?

Having a healthy shoreline means creating a stable ecosystem that supplies oxygen for fish, food for all organisms, and shelter for all creatures.

Here are the top reasons that you should prioritize caring for the shore.

bulletImproved water quality

Both natural shorelines and wetlands help to moderate storms.

They’re nature’s final defense when it comes to pollution.

When you default to the natural shoreline, you ensure high-quality water that is better for drinking, fishing, farming, and swimming.

bulletIncreased property values

If you’re not convinced of the value that caring for living shorelines will have on the environment, then (at the very least) the extra funds in your wallet can help convince you.

A well-maintained shoreline can help boost your property value

bulletBetter beaches

Do you love the beach?

Fellow human beings are displacing sand dunes and eroding sandy beaches…meaning beaches are fast disappearing!

With your help, we can protect the shoreline so there’s always a beach to go to.

11. What materials are used for living shorelines?

If you’re constructing living shorelines, you’ll use the following materials (depending on the zone you’re in).

bulletVegetation zones

    1. Clean dredge material and sand fill – used to construct a rolling slope to weaken wave energy and provide a spot for plant vegetation
    2. Roots – tree and grass roots stabilize the riparian area above high tide by gripping the soil; this minimizes bank erosion, boosts upland runoff filtration, and increases wildlife habitat creation

bulletWetland and beach areas

    1. Breakwaters – provides erosion control and habitat development by breaking up wave activity in open waters
    2. Filter fabric – a key element in minimizing soil loss under rocks
    3. Geotextile material tubes – tubes about 12 feet in diameter that are filled with sediment and intended to weaken wave energy and protect against erosion
    4. Low-crested rock sills – single rocks placed in a parallel arrangement underwater along shorelines and marshes
    5. Mangroves – the root system traps nutrients and sediments to dissipate wave energy
    6. Marsh grasses – planted up to the mean high tide line and in the water of the intertidal zones to break up wave energy; provides fish and other wildlife habitats; improves water quality through upland runoff filtration
    7. Natural bio-logs/fiber logs – reduce bank erosion and stabilize inclines when implemented at the bottom of a slope or in the water
    8. Natural fiber matting – made of jute, straw, coir fiber, wood, or a combination of biodegradable, organic mediums
    9. Rock footers – small quantities of boulder or rock intended to enhance bank stabilization and add additional support to biologs
    10. Rubble and recycled concrete – helps to create a breakwater offshore to refract wave energy before it hits the area

bulletSubmerged aquatic zones

    1. Oyster shell reefs – using oyster reefs to decrease shoreline erosion rates is essential; oysters are critical in enhancing water quality
    2. Reef balls of oysters – artificial reef made up of small hollow concrete balls that allow the build-up of oyster shells
    3. Seagrass beds – prevent shoreline erosion by creating natural buffer zones

Final Thoughts

Living shorelines are the idea when it comes to supporting marine ecosystems.

However, it doesn’t have to be all or nothing.

Sometimes, integrating elements of living shorelines with harder shoreline structures can work in the environment’s favor.

It can stabilize coasts, bays, tributaries, etc. and moves you toward the living shoreline that you ultimately want to see.

As a landowner, it’s your responsibility to do what’s best for your property.

When living shorelines improve water quality, increase biodiversity, promote recreation, and provide marine habitats, why wouldn’t you want to jump on board?

Additional Resources

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Disclaimer: we are not lawyers, accountants or financial advisors and the information in this article is for informational purposes only. This article is based on our own research and experience and we do our best to keep it accurate and up-to-date, but it may contain errors. Please be sure to consult a legal or financial professional before making any investment decisions.

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