John Flood remembers when the shoreline holding the South River back from the Londontown community was an eroding beach, a place too dangerous for children to play and not stable enough to protect homes during the worst hurricanes.
Now, the shoreline looks like a wild wetland. High marsh plants, such as hibiscus, high-tide bushes and Virginia creeper cover a small hill, a barrier between the water and the land. In front of those plants are low-tide grasses, Spartina alterniflora, which function as the kidneys of the system, sucking nutrients out of the water as it flows around them. And, in front of them are four collections of rocks that create tidal pools that direct the water to the plants as well as break up wave energy to further protect the shore.
It's a living shoreline, a dynamic system that takes the water in and uses it instead of trying to fight the sea and push it back. And it's something Chesapeake Bay homeowners are going to see more of as bulkheads, rip-rap and revetments fall out of favor with both the permitting authorities and neighborhood associations.
"This living shoreline is going to outlive big bulkhead projects by decades, because it will retain its inter-tidal aspect," said Flood, who designed the Londontown shoreline as well as many others in the area. "They can absorb so much more of the nutrients than the traditional kind."
Once skeptical of these projects, state and federal officials are now praising them, and government grant money is paying for them. On a beautiful late-summer day, the Chesapeake Bay Trust announced $800,000 in grants for more living shoreline projects. Over the last seven years, the trust has spent $4 million on 83 living shoreline projects in Maryland and Virginia, resulting in 40,000 linear feet of shoreline and 830,000 square feet of wetlands. The funding has come through a partnership with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and in Maryland, the state's Departments of Environment and Natural Resources and the sale of special Chesapeake Bay license plates.
Recipients included schools, local governments, community associations, museums and river-advocacy groups. In many cases, the recipients put up a matching grant and volunteers to install the projects.
Living Shorelines are now the preferred method to control erosion. A 2008 Maryland law mandated that living shorelines become the protection method of choice to hold back erosion, instead of the rip-rip that has become such a common site along riverfront homes.
Thanks to the law, of the nearly 1,000 permits the MDE issues every year for erosion-control structures, only about three are for replacing bulkheads or rip-rap, according to Richard Ayella, MDE's chief of tidal wetlands permits.
The living shorelines have brought terrapin back to nest on beaches that had not seen them for decades, said Eric Schwaab, NOAA's assistant secretary for fisheries. They've also led to the return of minnows, crabs, shrimp and small worms that burrow among the plants.
"We spend a lot of time focusing on fisheries management," Schwaab said, "but it's very clear that if we don't attend to these habitats, then our fisheries are not going to be sustainable."
It has taken nearly 30 years for the tide to turn in favor of living shorelines. Flood, who pushed the change, was one of the practice's most unlikely prophets. For 20 years, he was a pile driver. He built many of the bulkheads in Anne Arundel County.
"My business was bulkheads," Flood said, "even though I knew it was wrong."
Flood could see the negative affects. Crabs would no longer visit the shoreline, and turtles lost their habitat. The bulkheads were made of pressure-treated creosote, which contains chemicals that can impair fish when ingested. But the homeowners wanted it.
In the mid-1980s, Flood said, he began reading about cordgrass, Spartina alterniflora, that is now the standard for low-marsh plants. He started to incorporate some aspects of living shorelines in his work. He'd already moved into more stonework and fewer bulkheads.
In 1987, he had the chance to work with a young planner, Patrick Haddon, on a living shoreline project in Quiet Waters Park. The state opposed the project, Flood said. But Haddon, now the planner in Charles County, was able to push it through. Businessmen from the Rotary Club installed the stone and paid for the materials.
Quiet Waters showed the public how the concept could work, but it was small. Flood next tackled South River Farm Park, building a living shoreline that was 1,800 linear feet for a cost of $53,000. It worked, he said, and people started believing.
After Tropical Storm Isabel pounded the Bay in 2003, state officials checked on the shorelines.
"We found a lot of failed stone and bulkheads," Ayella recalled. "We didn't find any failed marsh projects."
Community associations took notice, and began to secure grants to rebuild their old bulkhead shorelines with living ones. With more than 95 percent of the shoreline privately owned in Maryland, educational institutions, such as the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, allowed the public — and public officials — to see the benefits of wetland plants over hard rocks.
"The kids love it, and the critters love it even more, I would say," said Langley R. Shook, president of the St. Michael's museum, which secured $60,000 from the trust to finish an ambitious living shoreline project at the museum's Talbot County property. "We have one in place that has done its job as it's supposed to do."
The state, which fought Flood's Quiet Waters project when William Donald Schaefer was governor, is now advocating that living shorelines become the standard.
"We've been converted," said MDE Secretary Bob Summers, who was, like Ayella, always a believer. "We've demonstrated that it can work."
Summers noted there are a few situations where a living shoreline won't work — such as beaches that face a long fetch of open water or places that experience more than two feet of erosion a year. In those cases, homeowners can apply for a waiver.
Last year, Virginia passed a law similar to Maryland's. It requires the state's permitting authority to recognize that a living shorelines is the preferred alternative. The law followed a request from the legislature for the Virginia Institute of Marine Science to study shoreline management and suggest regulatory changes. Virginia — particularly the Hampton Roads area — has one of the highest rates of sea-level rise and coastal flooding in the country.
The trust doesn't use its Maryland license plate money for Virginia projects. But both NOAA and the EPA have been giving money to the trust to pass to other states in the watershed because of the trust's expertise in grant management. The living shorelines money for Virginia came from NOAA. Virginia also has a Bay plate, but it collects far less money than Maryland does and the programs receiving those funds are education-focused, said trust spokeswoman Molly Alton Mullins.
Flood said he accomplished his goal of creating a demand for living shorelines — so much so that his company, Flood Bros., can't handle all of the requests it gets for projects. Now, he said, he'd like to help set the standard for how to build them. Too often, he said, contractors use too much rock and don't allow the tidal pools to circulate, which prevents the spartina from doing its job.
Several years after volunteers helped build the Londontown living shoreline, it's clear that it, too, has done its job. It looks a lot more filled-in than when it was built, and Flood said he regularly comes by to pull invasive plants and maintain it. Flood says he's won over skeptical homeowners — the ones who thought it would never hold back the river, and the ones who just didn't think it looked that attractive at first and would occasionally go out and trim wetland plants that blocked their view.
"If you are doing a real living shoreline, you build it, and it will come," he said. "It's not a picture on a wall. It's a real, living child. We have a responsibility for that, in how we make it, and how we maintain it."