Armoring against erosion is out of hand

ON THE BAY

Shore: Replacing natural banks now could hurt ecological conditions in the future.

July 01, 2005|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

AS SOON as Scott Sewell guns his bass boat into Sue Creek off Middle River, you can see his problem, which is really a rapidly worsening problem for the whole Chesapeake.

For hundreds of feet, the natural shoreline has been obliterated. Overhanging trees that shaded the tidal shallows are gone, as are the stumps and half-submerged fallen trunks and limbs that harbored fish, crabs and wading birds.

In their place are tons of whitish rock, armoring the banks to a height of several feet, backed by neat, green lawn.

"I guess it's supposed to look pretty, but to me it's ugly because I know what it's done to the environment," says Sewell, who lives on the next creek over and is conservation director of the Maryland Bass Federation.

Ironically, Maryland and Virginia have become generally more protective of the wetlands and other natural vegetation along the bay's tidal shorelines in recent decades. Maryland's Critical Area Act, for example, is highly restrictive of any disruption within 100 feet of tidewater.

But when the magic words "erosion control" are invoked, all bets are off.

Virtually for the asking, state, federal and local permits are available to any landowners to armor and harden their waterfronts against erosion - even where little threat of it exists.

Permit applications in Maryland do not even ask whether there is any erosion; and the state will lend you money at zero interest to help with the project.

"Some places absolutely do need [armoring] to stop erosion," says Kevin Smith, chief of restoration services at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

But, say Smith and other bay restoration experts, the current scope and pace of shoreline hardening is out of hand: "dramatic changes in ecological conditions are inevitable if current trends continue," says a recent report from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.

Virginia issued permits to harden - which is to say virtually wipe out the natural system - around 220 miles of its tidal shoreline between 1993 and 2004. It continues at about 15 to 20 miles a year.

Between 1996 and 2005, the Maryland Department of the Environment issued permits allowing more than 200 miles of hardening - more than a million feet of tidal shoreline. Anne Arundel County alone accounted for 36 miles.

A new, detailed survey of Baltimore County, where Sewell lives, shows half of the total 253 miles of tidal shoreline is hardened. "There's so little natural shoreline left around here, it just breaks your heart when you see this," says Sewell as he shows another erosion control project.

The project surrounds Hopewell Pointe, a development that is part of the county's east-side "renaissance" - but no renaissance for nature, it's clear from the rock-wrapped shore.

County officials argue that such projects' harmful impacts are outweighed by the reduction of sediment pollution and elimination of fallen trees that can become boating hazards.

Both Maryland and Virginia try to reduce erosion control's impacts. They discourage bulkheads, the sheer walls of wood or metal that reflect wave energy, worsening offshore erosion and wiping out sand beaches where terrapins and horseshoe crabs lay eggs.

Stone riprap, the most common armoring now, is an improvement, but only a modest one. Its perils were apparent on a recent visit I made to the upscale Southwinds development in Queen Anne's County, where more than a mile of stone plates the shores.

Horseshoe crabs were coming ashore to spawn along a fringe of sand at the foot of the rocks, a ritual of procreation that has occurred longer than any other in nature. (The horseshoes evolved some 180 million years before dinosaurs.)

The crevices in the rock formed a deadly trap. Dozens of the crabs struggled, futilely, to regain the water. A biologist told me of finding a nesting terrapin that had struggled so long in riprap that it wore its rear foot away.

While it's unlikely we can do away with shoreline hardening, we could do far better. In Middle River, Sewell showed me an excellent erosion control project the county did, using minimal stone combined with wetland plantings. The same might have worked for Hopewell Pointe and the Sue Creek site.

Such "soft" or "living shoreline" alternatives are increasing in Maryland and Virginia - but they need a regulatory push, adequate government and private technical support, and outreach to shoreline owners.

Sometimes, property owners just need to know they don't have to do anything. Armored shorelines must become a last resort. They don't just cut nature off, they disconnect humans from experiencing the natural tidal edges.

We are on a pace to armor some 4,000 miles of tidal shoreline in the next century, which would be a disaster. It's time we took a comprehensive look at what we're doing, to stop this piecemeal stoning of nature.

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