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A Harder Push to Create Softer Shorelines

Not long after Sterling Rollings bought a 100-year-old cottage in Portsmouth, VA, on the Elizabeth River — his first waterfront property — his shoreline began retreating.

The change was gradual at times, an inch or two of grass giving way to murky mud, and stark at others. Nor’easters churning up raucous waves would eat several inches from the edge in a day. By the time Rollings called the Elizabeth River Project early this year for help, the jutting point of his shoreline had receded by about 3 feet.

“In the year and a half it took me to redo the house, I watched the shoreline disappear,” said Rollings, who had retired to work on renovations.

The Elizabeth River Project, it turns out, was looking for people just like Rollings — property owners who might be interested in nature-based erosion solutions known as living shorelines. Despite the growing acceptance of living shorelines as the preferred method of erosion control during the last 40 years, some areas of the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers still feature miles and miles of coasts hardened or “armored” with rocks and walls. Many of them are on private land.

A Virginia law that went into effect in July now requires landowners to install living shorelines when they plan coastline construction, unless the “best available science” indicates the site would not be suitable for such an approach. Maryland enacted a similar mandate in 2008.

Rather than hardening the shores with concrete or stone riprap, living shorelines create natural edges that receive the water’s ebb and flow and, over time, can be more resilient in the face of rising sea level and powerful storms. They also create habitat for wildlife and filter polluted runoff from the land.

But persuading landowners to make the switch from traditional shoreline stabilization methods can be difficult, even as the new mandate will require many of them to do so.

Living shoreline Elizabeth River

Living shorelines, like this newly created one on a Virginia property, use nature-based solutions to help control erosion and provide wildlife habitat.

One study showed that property owners were mostly swayed by what neighbors had on their shorelines — often vertical retaining walls called bulwarks or revetments of piled rock — rather than science.

“If your neighbor has a revetment, you will, too,” said Joe Rieger, deputy director of restoration for the Elizabeth River Project, summarizing the study’s findings and his own experience trying to get living shorelines installed near Norfolk. Living shorelines have “long ago gotten acceptance by the environmental community and universities, but it just hasn’t caught on to the degree that we’d hoped for.”

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