Chesapeake Bay property owners should learn about the new, preferred approaches to shoreline erosion control, which are actually not new at all. Just like we used to think Smokey the Bear's Prevent Forest Fires was the right way to manage forests and the use of DDT was the right way to control mosquitoes, it is now understood how bulkheads and riprap are not optimum for the Bay's health as well as a less effective over time. The original and now resurgent building material in the Bay was and is oyster shell, cemented together into shoreline and deep reefs (4'-15' depths). As the proper sill for a Living Shoreline, oysters protected the marsh toe during normal tides. The marsh grass roots the bottom sediments in place and captures any damaging runoff from the uplands. There was little erosion when Capt. John Smith made these observations about the clear and fabulously productive waters in the Bay.
Such shoreline reefs were completely mined away over four centuries from the Chesapeake as part of the oyster’s total habitat destruction due to overharvesting, long before diseases became another obstacle in the late 20th century. There are still many in states south of VA, where there was no convenient rail head (such was Crisfield, MD).
The photo shows a Living Shoreline capable of handling what the sea can dish out. The oysters protect the marsh grass toe (edge). Overtopping waves cannot hurt the marsh and are, in fact, dissipated by the plants. Upland soil erosion just thickens the marsh base. However, if riprap or bulkhead are behind the marsh, it cannot migrate to higher ground and therefore drowns, either due to sea level rise or local subsidence.
Virginia governments and municipalities are behind Living Shorelines. Virginia’s State Legislature passed a resolution in 2012 stating the Living Shorelines were the preferred method to prevent shoreline erosion control. Some county Wetland Boards require an argument why a LS will not work prior to granting a permit for riprap or bulkhead. The City of Norfolk has been actively promoting LS for decades within their jurisdiction.
Recently, the State Legislature passed two laws favoring the LS. One prohibits a LS from being taxed by any local government as a part of property taxes. The second law is to provide funding and structure to low cost LS loans and grants. This initiative is in the process of being set up by the Middle Peninsula Planning District.
So it is really not a matter of if we get smarter about how to protect shoreline property and how to boost Bay water quality, it's more about when we will acquire the will to do the right thing, not the same old thing.