More than 1,700 bags of oyster shells are stacked on pallets along an eroding shoreline at Charles Hogge's home on Sarah Creek in Gloucester.
One by one, each 30-pound mesh bag of shells is handed down a human chain of two dozen USS Truman sailors stationed along the shore and in the water. They are there as volunteers, lending a helping hand for an environmental project in the community.
When each bag gets to the end of the chain, it's strategically positioned in the water to form what will soon become an oyster shell sill 21/2 feet tall and 200 feet long.
"We got the weather right, just didn't get the tide right," says Walter Priest, a habitat wetland restoration specialist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He designed the triangular-shaped sill, which is 4 feet wide at the bottom and narrower at the top. Eventually, oyster larvae will attach to form a living colony.
Fortunately, the sun is shining and it's a cool summer day. Unfortunately, northern winds push the tide in, instead of out, so low tide is not as low as it should be. Even so, the work goes smoothly and the bags are slowly put into place. As 1:30 p.m. and low tide nears, the sill grows taller and longer.
After the sill is done, Hogge will bring in 250 cubic yards of washed, coarse beach sand that he will grade in a slight slope toward the oyster shells. Filter cloth installed vertically will keep the sand from washing further into the creek.
This fall, he will plant hundreds of marsh grass plugs in the sand, and a living shoreline will begin what is hopefully a long life.
As the grasses mature and the oysters thrive, Hogge will enjoy the scenic sights and environmental benefits of a marine habitat — great blue herons searching for food among grasses filled with small crabs and fish. He and wife Kathleen will also enjoy some peace of mind, knowing their shoreline is safer and healthier and is helping reduce the sediment load into waterways that feed the Chesapeake Bay.
For decades, retaining walls stacked with granite boulders or bulkheads crafted from marine-grade lumber or concrete have been the main way to bolster eroding shorelines.
When stone riprap is used to protect a shoreline, marsh grass often grows at the edges and among the rocks, giving marine life a place to live. Bulkheads, on the other hand, tend to create a sterile environment. The rate of soil erosion, the lay of the land and the amount of wave action often determines what works best.
When the Hogges built their home in 2009, they soon realized serious erosion was carving big holes into the moderately steep banks of their property. Erosion also threatened the root systems of decades-old cedar trees that would soon topple and fall, if not secured in some fashion.
"I started looking for solutions and talking to people and began to learn about the living shoreline concept," says Hogge.
"I talked to contractors about riprap and bulkheading but those hard solutions didn't offer the environmental or ecological benefit I was looking for.
"The Virginia Institute of Marine Science, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Virginia Marine Resources Commission visited the site.
"Walter drew up the plan. We liked it and here we go."
As more homeowners like the Hogges express interest in living shorelines, more marine contractors embrace the idea, according to Priest.
"Riprap or bulkhead is a tried-and-true process, so it's taking some time but more contractors are comfortable with the living shoreline concept. There were about 35 local contractors at a daylong training workshop on living shoreline held recently at VIMS," he says.
"It's an evolutionary process."
In Hampton Roads, living shorelines are still in the experimental stages, even though marine contractors like Jeff Watkins of Riverworks in Gloucester have done more than 150 in the past 18 to 20 years. Riverworks has been building commercial and residential piers and wharfs since 1979, and implemented the living shoreline for Steve Fox on Sturgeon Creek in Middlesex County, a project that has been used as a case study for marine biologists.
At Gloucester Point, the Teaching Marsh at VIMS is a living shoreline that was established in the 1990s, and it's still going strong, according to Priest.
Living shorelines work best when they are located at low-energy sites like creeks with minimum wave action. High-energy sites such as the Yorktown waterfront on the York River require larger breakwaters fashioned from granite boulders; grass and other saltwater-tolerant plantings help soften the environment and create a habitat setting.
In Gloucester, Timberneck Farm is using living shoreline techniques to benefit 500 feet along Timberneck Creek. An oyster reef just off the shoreline has been established, and a granite breakwater will help ensure erosion sediment doesn't feed into the nearby York River.
"It's a win-win design because we are being responsive to environmental concerns," says Chuck Roadley, an environmental consultant with the Williamsburg Environmental Group, which did the living shoreline design.
At the Jamestown 4-H Camp on the James River, a living shoreline was created to stabilize and reduce the erosion of bluffs along 350 feet of the shoreline. It also enables the 4-H center to expand its ecology and marine science curriculum to include the design, implementation and ongoing benefits of a living shoreline.
The first phase of the project is one of two 125-foot stone breakwaters, sand replenishment with 3,000 cubic yards of sand and beach plantings with smooth cordgrass, switchgrass and saltmeadow hay.
Watkins, contractor and designer for the Jamestown project, says the science of creating a living shoreline is an ongoing process because so many factors, including sunlight, geology and erosion rate, play into each design.
"They are all different, not a model anywhere, which keeps me excited every day," he says.
"I've done living shorelines in Sarah's Creek which are successful, planted and looking good. I've also tweaked some.
"The term 'living shorelines' is a catchy term that's been coined by environmentalists, and it's a good one.
"But, we're putting structures out there to help the process, so I really think we ought to call them 'assisted-living shorelines.' "
What is a living shoreline?
What is a living shoreline?
It's a shoreline erosion control technique that consists of planting native wetland plants, grasses, shrubs and trees at various points along the tidal water line, according to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Stone, oysters and manmade materials can be included.
•improve water quality by settling sediments and filtering pollution;
•provide shoreline access to wildlife, such as nesting turtles, horseshoe crabs and shorebirds;
•provide shallow water habitat and a diversity of plant species for aquatic
and terrestrial animals;
•provide shade to keep water temperatures cool, helping to increase oxygen
levels for fish and other aquatic species;
•look natural rather than man-made and artificial;
•absorb wave energy so that reflected waves do not scour the shallow sub-tidal zone and hamper the growth of underwater grasses; and
•are often less costly than wooden bulkheads and rock walls, also known
Learn more: Chesapeake Bay Foundation at cbf.org/livingshorelinesCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times