Environmentalists Seek Natural Buffers to Replace Bulkheads
By TIM HYLAND, Staff Writer

Standing atop a steep slope at Quiet Waters Park, overlooking the South River, John Flood can see the best and worst of shoreline protection.

To his left, a heavy bulkhead blocks the river from precious shore. It also blocks crabs and turtles, does nothing to prevent harmful stormwater runoff and, like most bulkheads, was costly to build.

To his right, river laps up against a row of marsh grasses. Formations of heavy rocks a couple of feet from shore break the waves before they hit, and turtles and crabs have easy access to nesting habitat. Erosion is controlled, runoff from the forest above is filtered or trapped -- and the entire project cost just $2,200.

"All of those things are a step in the right direction," Mr. Flood said.

A member of the South River Federation and local environmental activist, he hopes to convince waterfront property owners that "living shorelines" -- natural buffers that use plants, sand, rocks and nature to prevent erosion -- are a viable alternative to bulkheads, rock walls and other traditional barriers.

He pushed the idea last week during a forum at St. John's College in Annapolis. More than 100 people attended, including County Councilman Barbara Samorajczyk, local scientists and environmental experts.

"If we can get (people) to accept shoreline restoration, we'll not only improve their lives on their own property, but we'll improve the lives of wildlife on that same property," said Mr. Flood. "This is just a good thing for everybody."

Anne Arundel County may be among the national leaders in using living shorelines, with several local projects already completed and more on the way.

At St. John's College, a pilot project along College Creek replaced a portion of bulkhead, sprouted a lush marsh habitat and attracted a variety of wildlife.

Steve Linhard, assistant treasurer for the college, said the pilot project was "exceedingly" successful, and the college is pushing forward with plans to remove its entire 800-foot bulkhead.

That would cost up to $450,000, but Mr. Linhard said it's worth it.

"I think (the living shoreline) is actually much less complicated than structural solutions, and the cost is significantly less than structural solutions," he said. "You add on top of that the benefits of low maintenance -- you never have to replace it once it's there."

At the Horsehead Wetlands Center in Grasonville, partners including the Department of Natural Resources and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation transformed a stretch of ugly bulkhead into 2,500 feet of beachfront. Diamondback turtles now use the area for nesting.

In coming weeks, projects will begin along Spa Creek at Truxtun Park and in Murray Hill near Lafayette Street.

"More and more environmental consultants are going this route, and the permit services are getting more comfortable with the results," said Rob Schnabel, a Chesapeake Bay Foundation scientist who helped develop the Grasonville project. "There just needs to be somewhere for people to go and get the information."

At the March 22 forum, speakers made their case that living shorelines, while just as effective as bulkheads at erosion prevention, also provide a range of other benefits.

"Aesthetically, it looks much nicer," Mr. Schnabel said. "You'll increase the wildlife habitat. And typically it costs 50 percent less than the hard stone approach."

In many cases, heavy barriers aren't even necessary, Mr. Schnabel said. Many local shorelines sit along smaller tidal creeks, and are not exposed to the high-energy wave activity of the Chesapeake Bay or larger rivers.

But Mr. Flood said too many property owners still prefer bulkheads as a method of shoreline protection.

"They have an aesthetic view that is in conflict with the habitat value that exists there," he said. "Until they recognize that conflict, they can't address it."

Published March 29, 2003, The Capital, Annapolis, Md.
Copyright 2003 The Capital, Annapolis, Md.

(Revised June 2006)