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Living Shorelines

God’s natural bulkhead is marsh grass and plants. This strong growth of grass along the shoreline of the Reedville Fisherman’s Museum holds the shoreline firm and safe.

by Larry S. Chowning

The technique of creating living shorelines is a modern, creative, “green” approach to protecting tidal waterfront from erosion.

Traditionally, shoreline erosion has been treated by installing wooden bulkheads or stone rip-rap. The appearance is hard and unnatural, yet most waterfront landowners have used this method of protecting their land for decades.

Along with the natural look of a living shoreline, biologs hold back the sand, limit the amount of wave action against the shore, and can be positioned to shape the shoreline with a more pleasing look than a straight-edged shore.

A living shoreline is a technique of planting native wetland plants and grasses, shrubs and trees at various points along the shoreline and reconstructing a natural setting.

Plantings are often coordinated with carefully installed bioengineering materials, such as man-made 300-pound coconut-fiber rolls called biologs or core-logs. Sometimes a rock jetty also is required, depending on the strength of the water action against a specific shoreline, said Jimmy Meredith of Hammer Time Marine in Deltaville.

The expense depends on the type of barrier. Rock is naturally more expensive and can exceed the cost of traditional bulkheading, said Meredith. The advantage to a living shoreline is that if it works properly there are no repair costs down the road. The opposite is true of wooden bulkheads, which must be replaced in time, he said.

The biologs or rocks serve as a wall along the shoreline to give the planted vegetation time to grow large enough to secure and stabilize the shoreline. The purpose of the walls in front of the vegetation is also to dissipate the wave action against the shore.

This living shoreline at the Deltaville Maritime Museum was installed several years ago. The biologs used to hold back the shore while plants grow have biodegraded and marsh grass is thriving.

The advantage of the biologs is that they are biodegradable and will go back to the earth, leaving behind a strong shoreline that should not erode, said Meredith.

Onna and Lew Grimm of Deltaville Yachting Center in Deltaville had some shoreline eroding at their marina. So about 18 months ago they started considering their options.

“Lew and I didn’t like the looks of the hard-scape seawall,” said Onna. “We started looking at options and the first place we went was to the shoreline of the Deltaville Maritime Museum.

“They built a living shoreline along the shore on Mill Creek at the museum,” she said. “It’s been so successful you can’t even tell where it was.”

The museum used a biolog system. The biologs look like a caterpillar made of old-time macramé, two and a half-feet around, 20-feet long, weighing 300 pounds dry and stuffed with coconut bark.

“The line of biologs needs to be installed half-way between low and high tides,” said Onna. “The way you install it shapes your shoreline. If you want a little different shape, you can do it.”

The project at Deltaville Yachting Center was sponsored through a grant obtained by Friends of the Rappahannock, an area environmental organization.

Before the living shoreline was installed at Stingray Point Marina in Deltaville, this is how the shoreline looked. (Courtesy of Hammer Time Marine)
If wave action in a creek is high, rock is used to hold the shoreline and provide protection for sand and vegetation.  This rock living shoreline shows Stingray Point Marina in Deltaville after installation. (Courtesy of Hammer Time Marine)

“It was a $10,000 project and the grant covered the entire amount,” said Onna. “Part of the requirement of using the grant was utilizing volunteers from Friends of the Rappahannock. They wanted their volunteers to be part of it so they could learn and teach others about the system.

“My son-in-law is a state biologist with the U. S. Department of Agriculture and he brought a crew of people down to learn how to install it,” she said. “We had 35 to 40 people helping install the biologs. Then, on the second day, we had to go back in and do the planting.”

Michelle and Jimmy Meredith of Hammer Time Marine in Deltaville got the permits, supervised the installation, and ordered the biologs. “They had all the volunteers get along side a caterpillar (biolog). That’s what they looked like—long, giant caterpillars. They grabbed the macramé and picked the 300 pounds up and walked it down, positioned it, and stacked it.

“Every bit of what’s there will totally biodegrade in three or four years,” said Onna. “Right now, the shoreline looks settled. The stakes are there, but they will erode and the biologs will become part of the earth.

“We came in behind the biologs with backfill sand,” she said. “It had to be the exact kind of sand that was in Broad Creek and it had to be tested to make sure we had the right type. 
“Then we planted three different species of native wetland grasses. One close to the water, one halfway and another further up on the shore. The plants look wintry right now, but in a few months they’ll perk up and eventually our shore will look like the shoreline at the museum.

“We think this is great,” continued Onna. “This is a pass-it-on thing for us too. We think other people ought to be using this green approach to saving our shorelines.

“We have a group coming from North Carolina to see our project because it is generating environmental interest in a lot of places,” she said. 

The group coming from North Carolina is studying the entire Rappahannock River, she said. “They will start at the headwaters and take two weeks to canoe and kayak the entire river. They are coming here in July to see our project. We feel it’s very important that other people know the advantages of living shorelines!”

Location is important when installing a living shoreline

Jimmy and Michelle Meredith’s Hammer Time Marine in Deltaville specializes in the permitting, materials and installation for building living shorelines.

This living shoreline project at Deltaville Yachting Center on Broad Creek uses stacked macramé biologs filled with coconut bark to hold the shoreline in place, which enables the marsh grass to grow and establish itself. It was installed last year. It generally takes two to three years before the grass is established enough to protect the shoreline.

Michelle is certified through the Virginia Institute of Marine Science in the “Design and Construction of Living Shorelines” and can provide professional advice on the best locations for this style of shoreline protection.

Marsh grasses and vegetation used in a living shoreline project require about six hours of sunlight daily to mature, she said. “Sometimes people want to install a living shoreline under a giant tree overhanging the water,” she said. “It’s my job to inform them that the tree-line canopy needs to be raised and this can be done by simply trimming the trees.

“I also know what areas are most appropriate for a living shoreline shore,” she said. “Shorelines that have waters with high energy (a lot of wake and boat traffic) are not always good candidates for living shorelines.”

Michelle noted that medium energy sites (moderate boat traffic wake) often need rock to hold the land while plants are growing, and rock will only work if it can be placed in three feet or less of water.”

Also, fetch is an issue when it comes to living shorelines. Fetch is the distance over water between the shore needing protection and next shoreline. For example, a long fetch is between Stingray Point and the Eastern Shore. The longer the fetch the more likely wind and current can create high energy water. With a short fetch, such as in a creek, the water is low energy and makes it more desirable for a living shoreline.

Friends of the Rappahannock obtained a $10,000 grant to help Onna and Lew Grimm of Deltaville Yachting Center install a living shoreline along a portion of the marina’s property.

Currently, the Merediths are installing 215 feet of a rock and sand backfill living shoreline on Stove Point. “The ultimate goal is to create a natural shoreline by utilizing nature,” said Michelle. “Depth of water, length of shoreline, fetch and wave action all determine whether a living shoreline can be installed.”

Installing core logs is generally less expensive than a traditional wooden bulkhead. However, stone or rock systems are more expensive than a standard bulkhead. “The Stove Point project will require 900 tons of rock and a lot of backfill,” said Jimmy. “It would be less expensive to install some type of traditional bulkhead system but this person wants a living shoreline, no matter the cost.”

For more information on living shorelines, contact Hammer Time Marine at (804) 370-7635 or (804) 370-9163.

posted 03.23.2011

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