Erosion is natural, and so is erosion control

'Living shorelines' offer a light-handed alternative to riprap
By Ethan Andrews | Nov 01, 2018
Photo by: Ethan Andrews Paul Bernacki, third from right, a proponent of "living shorelines," leads an inspection of a stretch of beach near Turtle Head. Pictured from left are Bernacki's partner Bennett Verbeck, state Coastal Geologist Peter Slovinsky, Bernacki, state Forester Morten Moesswilde, and Steve Miller, executive director of Islesboro Islands Trust, which owns the adjacent land.

Islesboro — Confronted by the relentless force of erosion, many waterfront land-owners armor the land at water's edge with stone riprap, wooden cribbing or concrete seawalls. But another approach being tested by the state in Southern Maine, and already in use on some private properties in the Midcoast, might prove better in the long run.

"Living shorelines," as they are known, mimic natural processes to create a more flexible, and in many cases, more stable barrier.

Paul Bernacki, an organic farmer who lives in Montville, recently led an outing to Islesboro with a state geologist, a state forester and the director of the island's land trust to look at a strip of beach at the north end of the island where walking trails were being pinched by, and in some cases causing, erosion.

At one point, the group formed a half-circle at the rack line as Bernacki used his boots to mix together a clump of rotting seaweed, sand and sticks, talking over the operation like a television chef just whipping up something from the cupboard.

Storms might do something similar by tossing natural materials up the beach, he said later. Those that land above the high tide line form a fertile base layer where salt-resistant plants can take root and stabilize the shore against erosion.

Bernacki has been recreating this process at private properties in the Bayside neighborhood of Northport, using arrangements of drifted logs, stones, bulk organic materials and grasses. Balancing out an eroded shoreline might require removing large trees and planting shrubs, which can hold the soil without the added weight.

"What we're doing is, we're exaggerating nature," he said.

The stretch of beach in Islesboro is part of a 22-acre preserve owned by Islesboro Islands Trust. Steve Miller, the trust's executive director, said erosion along the shore had started encroaching on walking paths. The trust was looking into the possibility of a living shoreline, he said, as a way to control erosion while preserving the environmental integrity of the coastline.

Bernacki described it somewhat differently. Not long ago, relatively speaking, the tip of Islesboro was sheep pasture, meaning it had already been influenced by humans. Installing a living shoreline, he said, would amount to restoring a bygone environmental integrity.

"We're tinkering on an already-tinkered-with landscape to make it more resilient," he said. "If a minor storm comes along, nothing will happen. If it's a major storm, there will be some erosion and slippage but what slips down will be capable of growing again."

By contrast, an armored shoreline diverts erosion to neighboring properties and can damage mudflats and salt marshes in the intertidal zone.

Living shorelines are a fairly new idea in Maine, and for anyone who wants to try it, the permitting process is daunting, according to Peter Slovinsky, a coastal geologist with the state Department of Conservation Maine Geological Survey, who attended the inspection of the shoreline in Islesboro.

Slovinsky said the problem is regulators don't understand the concepts well enough to evaluate them. To make up for this, they require living shorelines to apply for a permit from the state Department of Environmental Protection, which can be expensive and time-consuming. Piling boulders on the shore, by contrast, can be done under "permit by rule," which simply requires shorefront landowners to notify DEP.

Slovinsky is overseeing several test sites on Casco Bay as part of a five-state demonstration program funded by a grant from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration and led by the Massachusetts branch of the Nature Conservancy.

The question, he said, is "can we come up with a regional monitoring protocol that is acceptable to federal agencies and that, in the long term, will streamline living shoreline permitting?"

Bernacki is hopeful but not especially optimistic. Under Gov. Paul LePage, he said, DEP has been eliminating funding for public education programs that would help those interested in a system that, like organic farming, requires a deeper understanding of how all the elements of a complex system fit together.

"This is not a big money-maker," he said. "It's highly labor-intensive. Very skilled, and it uses soft plants and techniques, not big backhoes and trucks."

State Coastal Geologist Peter Slovinsky, right, takes photos of erosion from a bluff at the north end of Islesboro Oct. 12 during a tour of the area with Paul Bernacki, center, Steve Miller, executive director of Islesboro Island Trust, and others. (Photo by: Ethan Andrews)
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