In a recent report, the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) affirms the value of “living shorelines” to manage erosion along sheltered coasts. The study confirms that living shorelines, where appropriate, offer a viable and durable alternative to built infrastructure while conserving the natural habitat along estuarine coasts, bays, sheltered coastlines, and rivers.
Living shorelines use a range of natural stabilization techniques—commonly involving the strategic placement of plants, stone, sand, and other materials—to control erosion and restore or protect shoreline habitat. These features reduce erosion while maintaining the vital connection between land and water ecosystems.
NOAA’s Living Shorelines Guiding Principles
- Use of living shoreline techniques to provide, maintain, or improve habitat or ecosystem function and enhance coastal resilience.
- Shoreline protection methodologies that avoid or minimize channel encroachment into subtidal habitat. NOAA does not promote the use of living shorelines as a means for land reclamation.
- Shoreline stabilization using the softest approach feasible based on site conditions.
- Careful consideration of regional and site-specific differences in factors such as wave energy, habitat types, and geologic setting in planning the appropriate living shorelines.
- Early coordination across multiple government and nongovernmental entities to discuss site characteristics, history of erosion at a site, and potential challenges for proposed shoreline management approaches.
- Incorporation of the best available regional and local shoreline science and practices into the siting, design, construction, evaluation and adaptive management of projects.
- Consideration of ecosystem services provided by a shoreline stabilization approach (such as erosion control and habitat for fish and other living marine resources) in living shoreline project design.
To “armor” shorelines against erosion, sea level rise, and severe weather, property owners and commercial interests often build bulkheads and seawalls, which are traditionally viewed as protective and sturdy. However, such manmade structures “harden” the coastline and can increase erosion and eventually fail. Living shorelines, on the other hand, grow stronger over time as the plants and natural elements become more established.
NOAA’s support for living shorelines is welcome news, given the growing evidence of the negative impacts of shoreline hardening, such as loss of wetlands and natural habitats, on coastal areas.
A recent analysis of shoreline hardening—that is, the addition of built infrastructure—in the U.S. found that at least 14 percent, or about 14,000 miles, of the nation’s tidal shoreline is already hardened. Without intervention, this figure is expected to grow.
Shoreline infrastructure solutions are site-specific. However, as the options for nature-based solutions increase, communities should consider whether natural defenses, such as living shorelines, can reduce their risk of erosion or loss of habitat.
Laura Lightbody is a director at Pew.