What It Was
The Congressional Estuary Caucus Co-Chairs, Representatives Bill Posey (FL-8), Suzanne Bonamici (OR-1), Frank LoBiondo (NJ-2), and Rick Larsen (WA-2), hosted a briefing, “Natural Infrastructure 101: What are living shorelines and how do they protect coastal communities?”
Why It Matters
More than half of the U.S. population lives in coastal areas. Urban development has contributed to the destruction of shoreline ecosystems, such as wetlands, marshes, mangroves, and coral reefs. These areas provide an important buffer against flooding, erosion, and coastal storms, and restoring them is simpler, cheaper, and more effective than building unnatural shoreline protection methods (e.g. seawalls and bulkheads). Experts explained why living shorelines are a win for budget, maintenance, and function – a timely topic as communities continue to recover from Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Maria, and Nate.
Over 14 percent of U.S. shores are protected with artificial hardened structures, such as seawalls and bulkheads. Living shorelines are natural barriers (e.g., plants, logs, and shells) that recreate or restore the existing ecosystem. Research shows that living structures are more effective, cheaper, and healthier for the environment than artificial barriers.
Wetlands and marshes function like sponges by absorbing water during heavy rains and reducing storm surge, thus decreasing flooding inland. If estuarine habitat didn’t exist in the area of New Jersey hit by Superstorm Sandy, the cost of repairs would have increased by $165 million. Following hurricanes, homeowners reported it cost twice as much to repair artificial barriers compared to their natural counterpart.
Living shorelines can be built quickly by hand without heavy equipment, which minimizes the initial cost. Maintenance requirements are also nominal, as nature takes over after the habitat is constructed. Since these are live structures, they grow over time, can adapt to changing sea levels, and naturally tolerate storms, all of which decrease maintenance.
Estuarine ecosystems, where fresh and saltwater meet, not only provide storm protection but are important for recreation, tourism, and fishing. Dr. Danielle Kreeger (Senior Science Director, Partnership for the Delaware Estuary) shared her excitement for the future, declaring, “Living shorelines open abundant business opportunities, potential for innovation, and collaboration between private sector, government, nonprofits, and universities.”
In 2016, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued Nationwide Permit 54 (effective through 2022), which makes it easier for homeowners to build natural coastal infrastructure by eliminating the need for individual permits so long as the project meets the nationwide criteria.
“Fringing wetlands are like kidneys; they filter out the pollutants in the water.” – Dr. Danielle Kreeger (Senior Science Director, Partnership for the Delaware Estuary)
“Traditional [hardened/concrete] shorelines are a lose-lose when it comes to cost and withstanding storms.” – Ms. Carter Smith (Doctoral Candidate, UNC-Chapel Hill)
Find Out More
- Restore America’s Estuaries
- Caterpillar – Natural Infrastructure
- NOAA Habitat Conservation
- Living Shoreline Factsheet
Related coverage from the Consortium for Ocean Leadership