CLIMATE: Rising seas force landowners to embrace once-reviled living shorelines

William Rabb, special to E&E

PENSACOLA, Fla. -- While some coastal property owners recoil at the idea of anything marring their view of the water, many are coming to a stark realization: "Living shorelines" -- with native grasses and rock or oyster-reef breakwaters -- may be the only option left for countering rising seas and eroding shoreline.
"It's either do this or lose our property altogether," said John Blackwell of Pensacola, who has seen almost 20 feet of his bayou-front land wash away in just four years.
Living shorelines, once considered a quaint notion espoused by a few environmental groups, are quietly gaining in popularity as the benefits and the science become more accepted. Sea walls, also known as bulkheads, are still widespread, but more and more policymakers and homeowners now agree that hardening the shore is more expensive, is futile against rising tides, can destroy marine habitat and can exacerbate erosion on adjacent properties.
"One argument is that people should just move away from the shore altogether," said Bill Sapp, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. "But there doesn't seem to be much political will to force that, so we have to take the steps we can to maintain the shore we have left."
South Alabama and northwest Florida were long considered the spiritual home of the bulkhead, and all the problems that go with that. A recent report by the SELC shows that more than 40 percent of the shoreline around sprawling Mobile Bay, Ala., is armored with sea walls or other structures. At Deadman's Island in Gulf Breeze, Fla., coffins buried after yellow fever epidemics in the 1800s were exposed in the last decade as the shoreline eroded, due in large part to extensive bulkheads built all around the shore, said Heather Reed, project manager for a restoration project there.
But in the last five years, the number of natural shoreline permits has tripled or even quadrupled in Alabama and northwest Florida, according to the Army Corps of Engineers, which must review most coastal construction work.
Living shorelines use marine grasses to hold sand and oyster-shell beds, porous concrete structures or mounds of rock as breakwaters to trip waves before they roar across the waterfront. Such shorelines cost less than sea walls and can adapt to rising water levels, say shoreline-restoration advocates.
As the water rises over time, the grasses trap more sand, building up the shore naturally. Natural shores also provide crucial habitat for marine life, which helps local fishermen, Sapp said.
Some waterfront residents have vehemently opposed living shores, in part because of climate change denial and in part because of the view.
Structured breakwaters, in particular, have been controversial because most rise above the water line. One coastal Alabama town recently rejected a federal grant that would have helped mitigate shoreline erosion, largely because council members thought the breakwaters would be "an eyesore" (see related story).
'Still evolving'
Getting the hydrology and ecology right for a successful living shoreline can be tricky. The work can take years to prove successful and may require significant revision and maintenance.
"The science is still evolving, but it has gotten a foothold in the last couple of years," said Doug Fry, head of the Submerged Lands and Environmental Resources Coordination Program at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
In some states, permitting for such projects is still a tangled mess of local, state and federal regulations. North Carolina, for example, has banned most hardened structures on ocean-side shorelines. But on inlets and bays, sea walls still get approved in days, while living shorelines can drag on for months, according to the North Carolina Coastal Federation. In Florida, a state agency has bragged about how quickly it approves bulkhead permits, often in less than two weeks, records show.
And in most restoration projects, the Army Corps has to review the work before granting a permit. That process can take as much as 16 weeks for a living shoreline, often because other federal agencies must also scrutinize the project's impact on threatened species and habitat.
On the other hand, the Army Corps will often approve a sea wall quickly, because it technically doesn't affect navigation or involve habitat restoration, said Reed, who's overseeing the Deadman's Island project and runs a shoreline restoration consulting company.
The permitting process is evolving, though, if only in fits and starts.
Starting last fall, Florida no longer requires permits for most projects covering less than 500 linear feet of shore, a big leap from the previous threshold of 150 feet. But the change wasn't widely reported, and almost a year later, restoration groups and property owners said they weren't aware of it. And the state rules still require that the work be kept within 10 feet of the mean high-water line, a restriction that can limit the success of some projects.
"It really needs to be 15 or 20 feet," said Patrice Couch, director of St. Andrew Bay Watch in Panama City, Fla., which last month enlisted 30 volunteers to plant marsh grass and build four living shorelines at the behest of property owners.
In Alabama, the Mobile Bay National Estuary Program, the Weeks Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, Mobile Baykeepers, the Nature Conservancy and others worked closely with the Coast Guard, Army Corps and state agencies in 2011 to produce a streamlined general permit for living shorelines. The average review time has dropped from 120 days to about 60, said the corps' Lisa Parker.
The corps' Northern Florida region, which is headquartered in Jacksonville and covers all of the Florida Panhandle, also is developing an expedited permit that could cut living shore permit wait times to as little as 30 days, said Cliff Payne, section chief for the corps. The new permit process should be unveiled by next spring.
In North Carolina, the state agency is in the process of relaxing its permitting process, but at least one coastal district of the corps still provides a regulatory disincentive for natural solutions, according to the Coastal Federation, which is working to change that.
Weighing options for change
For some coastal areas, age-old street plans can add yet another layer of complexity. In Pensacola, a street was platted along the edge of a bayou but was never paved, so the waterfront property is actually the county right of way. A group of homeowners said they had to wait two years just to get county authorities to allow them to proceed with applications to plant native grasses and build oyster-shell breakwaters.
"I don't care if the county owns it or if I own it, I just want to protect the shore," said Blackwell. His suggestion: a countywide master plan that would provide a step-by-step process to protect shorelines in all situations.
One group in Florida hopes to take it a step further and establish a program that would provide state and federal funding for 75 percent of the cost of shore restoration, with the property owner paying 25 percent.
The idea is modeled on the heralded Rebuild Northwest Florida program that provides hurricane fortification for homeowners and cuts insurance premiums significantly. Another idea is for local communities to require their own permits -- and charge much more for bulkheads.
A critical next step is to educate the contractors who install bulkheads, supporters say.
"It makes more sense if a contractor can go to the property owner and say, 'There are two different ways we can do this: a bulkhead, or for less money, a living shoreline,'" Sapp said.