Lawmakers close to mandating living shorelines

By PAMELA WOOD, Staff Writer
Published March 23, 2008, The Capital

Colleen Dugan - The Capital
Cub Scout Ryan Watson, 6, helps his father, Todd Watson, create a living shoreline yesterday in Loch Haven. Pending state legislation would require this type of shoreline.

Convinced of the benefits to water quality and wildlife, state lawmakers are poised to approve legislation that would require many waterfront property owners to install "living" shorelines. Living shorelines use plants, sand and limited amounts of rock to create a softer shoreline, rather than the wooden bulkheads and stone revetments that usually are seen along rivers and the Chesapeake Bay.

Officials at the Maryland Department of the Environment turned to the legislature for help in forcing more property owners to come on board with the concept. The House of Delegates gave final approval to MDE's bill yesterday.

Under the bill, living shorelines would be required unless a property owner could prove erosion is so severe that only an armored shoreline will do. It would apply to new projects and to reconstruction of existing shorelines.

The measure now goes to the state Senate.

"For years, we've had a preference in our regulations for living shorelines where they're possible," said Dr. Bob Summers, the state's deputy secretary for the environment. "But all too often, the homeowners ... get a particular idea about how to resolve the erosion problem and they don't give full consideration to a living shoreline approach."

Once property owners invest time and money having plans for an armored shoreline drawn up, it's hard to sway them the other way, Dr. Summers said.

"It becomes a challenge for us to convince them - even for people who would be receptive to the idea - to change their plan," he said.

In addition to the living shoreline bill, there's also language favoring the projects in the rewrite of the state's Critical Area law, which governs shoreline development. That bill also received final House approval yesterday and awaits Senate approval.

The state wants more people to follow the example of Edgewater's Loch Haven neighborhood, where the community beach called The Overlook is undergoing a transformation.

The old wooden bulkhead has been torn apart and the hillside now gently slopes to the sandy beach along the South River. A line of large rocks curves out into the water to protect the beach by trapping sand behind it.

Yesterday, volunteers planted tiny plugs of marsh grasses in the sand, one of the last steps in creating the living shoreline.

Ideally, the rocks will disperse, or soften, the impact of the South River's strong waves, while the sand and grasses will attract wildlife that depends on the delicate, marshy interface of land and water.

"I think a lot of people, when they see this, they'll say this is better than a bulkhead," said Rob Crupi, president of the Loch Haven Civic Association, the group responsible for the project. He imagines kids frolicking in the marsh grass and adults slipping kayaks into the river.

Living shorelines are the latest "must do" environmental project in the Chesapeake Bay region as more people realize that armored shores do nothing to help wildlife and water quality.

Community associations are among those jumping on the living shoreline bandwagon, excited by the promise of helping nature and spurred by a number of grants available to pay for the work.

But the living shoreline was a tough sell in Loch Haven, as many residents prefer their scenery to involve manicured lawns right up to the water's edge.

"People want to cut their grass up to the water," lamented Matt Schmit, who oversees The Overlook area for the civic association.

'Critters and crabs'

Living shorelines vary in design, but all aim to mimic the way shorelines looked before residents filled up the coasts with homes and marinas and condos.

The natural shorelines reduce erosion, bolster water quality and improve habitat for wildlife.

For a long time, wooden bulkheads and stone riprap were seen as the best way to protect land from washing away into rivers or the bay.

While the armored shorelines protected the land from erosion, it had other negative consequences, experts say.

When waves pound against armored shorelines, they bounce off and scour the bottom - making it nearly impossible for vital underwater grasses to survive there. It's not welcoming for fish or other critters.

Such was the case at St. John's College in downtown Annapolis, which recently restored 800 feet of shoreline along College Creek.

Before the project, a survey compared aquatic life along the bulkhead with a natural shoreline across the creek. The natural shoreline had 20 species of fish; the bulkheaded shoreline had five species.

The area where land and water meet is fertile ground for all kinds of life. Diamondback terrapins and horseshoe crabs need sandy shores to lay their eggs.

The grasses and marsh plants on living shorelines help filter pollutants before reaching the water.

Todd Watson, the treasurer for the Loch Haven community, is looking forward to seeing what kind of wildlife are attracted to the new shoreline.

"I like the idea of having a tidal area with little critters and crabs," he said.

There's also evidence that living shorelines are, in many cases, better at withstanding storms.

During 2003's Tropical Storm Isabel, the storm surge and waves overtook conventional hardened shorelines and undermined them from behind, said Gene Slear, who is with an Eastern Shore nonprofit called Environmental Concern, which has restored 30 miles of coastline. Living shorelines had less damage, he said.

"The real test was Isabel in 2003," he said. "Dozens and dozens of hardened shorelines and bulkheads failed."

The Maryland Commission on Climate Change also took note and recommended increased use of living shorelines as a way to deal with sea level rise caused by global warming.

Cost concerns

But not everyone is sold on the benefits of living shorelines.

At a General Assembly hearing, marine contractors and real estate professionals testified against the bill.

"It's a concern of the unknown," said Susan Zellers, director of the Annapolis-based Marine Trades Association of Maryland.

She said marine contractors already consider living shorelines when designing projects and they question the need for "putting more teeth in what is already there."

Other concerns have centered on whether living shorelines are more expensive than traditional projects.

The data on that front is mixed. According to a nonpartisan analysis of the bill, the Maryland Department of the Environment said some living shorelines cost less, while the Maryland Department of Natural Resources reported costs can be up to 20 percent more.

Wes Mapheu, who builds living shorelines through his Edgewater company, ShoreLine Design, said the price depends on the details of a specific project.

"It depends on the site. The cost can sometimes be less than a traditional bulkhead or revetment," he said. "Not always, though. Every site is specific."

Growing interest

Whether or not the living shoreline bill passes, experts expect the interest in these projects to continue.

One big reason is the Chesapeake Bay Trust, a nonprofit group that parcels out the money collected through the "Treasure the Chesapeake" license plates and tax return checkoffs.

Working with other agencies and nonprofits, the bay trust has helped local communities pay for living shorelines through grants.

For 2007-2008, the bay trust expects to give out $600,000 in grants for living shorelines.

In Loch Haven, for example, the total bill was $40,000 and $25,000 of that was paid by the bay trust.

Though many neighbors were initially skeptical, the fact that the living shoreline ultimately was cheaper helped convert some.

Mr. Watson, the community treasurer, said the civic association was planning to spend much more to replace the aging bulkhead with something similar.

"It was a very cost-effective way to do this," he said.

Grants and low-interest loans are available from other government agencies and nonprofit groups, too.

The Chesapeake Bay Trust grants have contributed in part to brisk business at Mr. Mapheu's ShoreLine Design. The company has built Chesapeake Bay Trust-funded living shorelines in Loch Haven, London Towne and other areas.

"We generally work with the community association and provide them with the concept design and cost proposal. They take that information to the Chesapeake Bay Trust to get a grant," Mr. Mapheu said.

ShoreLine Design also builds traditional armored shorelines and restores streams, but half of their calls these days are to build living shorelines, a sign that the softer shorelines are catching on.

The living shoreline business is doing so well, Mr. Mapheu said he doesn't have to advertise it. He gets most of his clients through word-of-mouth.

"There definitely is an interest to do these," he said.

(Revised Mar 2008)