Five years ago, Underwood & Associates completed the Pines on the Severn Living Shoreline project. While bulkheads and stone revetments would be weaker after 5 years, a living shoreline designed and built by Underwood & Associates has only gotten stronger. Sand, cobble, and other native building materials have settled into place, and vegetation has grown in thick and dense. Egrets strut along the shoreline at dusk, silently scanning for dinner, while horseshoe crabs can be spotted mating in the shallows during summer.
On a blustery mid-October afternoon, I met Ellen Posten in the Pines on the Severn neighborhood to walk her community’s living shoreline. If this living, breathing shoreline has a mother, it’s Ellen. Beginning in 2012 at a community meeting, she began advocating that the solution to their failing bulkhead was a dynamic living shoreline. It didn’t take much convincing to get the Pines on the Severn community behind Ellen as she led the charge for the living shoreline with Severn Riverkeeper, Sara Caldes, guiding her through the process. Together they applied for and won grant funding and maintained patience and perseverance during the permitting process. I asked Ellen how the living shoreline project has changed the way her community interacts with the water. She responded, “Now it’s a very different place. I have a house that’s just down a way on the water so I can see what’s happening on that side of the shoreline. I’m always seeing people just sitting on the dock, fishing, sunbathing, a lot of people just walking, walking the dogs.” We agreed that the living shoreline not only gave wildlife access to the shoreline, but gave people access to the water.
Compare the spongy meadows of Spartina patens and the rhythmic sway of Spartina alterniflora as it absorbs wave action to the dilapidated, failing bulkhead that had been erected as a stout barrier between land and water during the decades following WWII. There was no connection, no harmony. As humans living by the water, our collective thought had become that we must wage war with the elements. Build a hard, strong barrier like a bulkhead or a stone revetment to keep those greedy waves from eroding our land. Yet we’ve learned that disconnecting the land from the water is not the best way to handle erosion. Ellen and I strolled down the sandy path out to the farthest community dock and stood watching the extremely high tide become effortlessly incorporated into the living shoreline landscape. I questioned Ellen if she had any advice for communities like hers and she replied by simply saying, “Put in a living shoreline and they will come.”
The community was obviously enjoying the living shoreline, and I was curious to find out if they were also pleased with Underwood & Associates’ performance. Ellen commented, "They were extraordinary to work with. Initially to educate the community, they provided very helpful materials and came to community meetings to explain living shorelines and why they are important. The construction process was very well organized and efficient. Tons of materials were brought out of and to the site with the least possible disruption and the whole construction process took just a matter of days. They have continued to follow up over the last five years to make sure there were no problems with the project and to help correct any minor issues.”
By softening the water-land interface with dynamic living shorelines we are giving our shorelines the tools to not only prevent erosion but to capture and amass more sand and continue to build beach strand. They resolutely withstand 100-year storms and hurricanes with grace and resilience. They offer a place of refuge for oystercatchers to nest and diamondback terrapins to come ashore and lay their eggs. They invite children to wade into the welcoming water and explore. They encourage fisherman to cast lines off their rocky headlands. Dynamic living shorelines have taught us that sometimes softness is the greatest strength of all.