NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (AP) — Paula Hersh has lived on the water for years, and has the eroded shorelines and property damage to prove it.
In 1996, Hersh said, Hurricane Fran eroded the bulkhead at her home in Mobjack Bay on the Middle Peninsula. In 2003, Isabel overrode the revetment armor on her embankment and took the house.
In 2007, she moved to a new home on the North River in Mathews County, where today the erosion is so bad she said she's at her wits end over how to protect her property.
Then she learned about living shorelines.
"We've tried them all," Hersh said. "It's my only hope."
Living shorelines have been used in Virginia for about 30 years, experts say, but today are still unknown among much of the general public.
"A living shoreline," explained Jana Davis, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Trust, "is the concept of using as many natural elements as possible to protect shoreline from erosion."
The trust is part of a partnership with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and others that provides grants to construct living shorelines in Virginia and Maryland. Last month, it awarded more than $800,000 to 16 projects, including three in Norfolk.
Davis explains, instead of traditional hard bulkheads on the water or stone revetments covering an embankment to bear the brunt of waves and tidal surges, a living shoreline is a manmade marsh or beach that not only stabilizes stream banks and coastlines but also provides critical habitat for wildlife.
High-energy areas with strong wave action or surges might also require an element of hard structure along the edge — such as the large beach and breakwater system at Yorktown — but low-energy areas, such as creeks, typically don't.
Each living shoreline is tailored to its environment and its intended use.
"The design is not entirely a science," Davis said. "There's a little bit of an art, as well."
Hersh said her shoreline, for instance, will incorporate coir logs made of coconut fiber to form a stabilizing perimeter in the river. The space between the logs and the shore will be filled with sand and graded to provide the elevation needed for native plants to thrive. When the logs biodegrade in a few years, mature plants will hold the new shoreline in place.
Jay Foster at R&W Marine Construction is heading the Hersh project. Although the concept is still "relatively unknown to most folks, unless they really do some checking around with the local wetlands boards," he said, "it's gaining in popularity."
The Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) in Gloucester Point has promoted the idea for years, and has one of the oldest living shoreline projects in the commonwealth, said Karen Duhring of the Wetlands Program at VIMS.
Its marsh sill has been in place since 1983, she said. A sill is a low stone structure with a marsh installed behind it. VIMS also has a beach breakwater living shoreline to absorb the high-energy waves rolling in off the York River.
The benefits can be economic, as well as environmental, said C. Scott Hardaway, citing Yorktown's extensive living shoreline. Hardaway is a marine science supervisor with VIMS' Shoreline Studies program.
"That has totally revitalized their waterfront," Hardaway said. "You'll see floating docks out there, ships, new restaurants near the pier. .Beaches are critical to the tourist industry — a multi-billion-dollar industry."
Last year, the General Assembly voted to encourage living shorelines in Virginia, and to devise a way to streamline the permit process.
Landowners now must run the gauntlet of permit approval — local wetlands boards, Chesapeake Bay preservation boards, the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC), the Army Corps of Engineers, or any combination, depending on the project — which can takes months and hundreds of dollars.
VMRC is in charge of streamlining the process, and consulting with wetlands boards and other agencies on how best to do so.
"We're investigating several things," said Chip Neikirk, deputy chief of VMRC's Habitat Management Division. "Anything that makes it a quicker process or a little less expensive. Those will be the two carrots that will help direct it."
Gloucester County is in the permitting process to build a living shoreline at its John's Point boat landing along Free School Creek. The landing now, said Parks and Recreation Director Carol Steele, "is a little bit of riprap and a whole lot of erosion."
They chose a living shoreline approach, Steele said, "because it's the right thing to do. Our department is interested in conservation and stewardship."
The county is applying for a $51,000 grant from the Chesapeake Bay Trust to help fund the $100,000 project. The remainder will come from donated construction and volunteer labor. When finished, it will be used as a demonstration site for the public to learn about living shorelines.
"In theory, a living shoreline, if designed properly, can last a long time . because it's a living system," said Davis. "As long as it's planted properly and dealt with properly, it could last forever."
Information from: Daily Press, http://www.dailypress.com