Occohannock on the Bay, a United Methodist camp and retreat center, sits modestly on the rise above Occohannock Creek, its cabins and beaches quiet among tall Virginia pines. A breeze out of the northwest is tinged with the promise of the coming winter storms that will soon buffet the shoreline of the creek in Belle Haven, VA.
Where campers splashed in the water and jigged for crabs just a month ago, a front-end loader is poised to pinch a 1,000-pound granite rock from a mammoth rock pile. The operator swings the arm out over the water and drops the rock just so between two PVC pipes that mark the linear “sill” of rocks, a mostly submerged jetty being built parallel to and about 50 feet from the shoreline.
The rock and sand will slope into the water, and the marsh grasses that will be planted later on are all part of the living shoreline that will defend the camp’s headlands from the open water to the west.
Gwynn Crichton, senior scientist for The Nature Conservancy in Virginia, and Scott Hardaway, head of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science’s Shoreline Studies Program, surveyed the site together. Hardaway, a geologist, has been designing and helping to build living shorelines long before the term was coined in the early 2000s. He knows it’s part science, part art — and he knows there are no guarantees when nature is involved.
Hardaway, noting the angle of prevailing winds in the winter (northeast to northwest), said, “It’s a 14-mile fetch from here across the Bay to Mathews County.” He eyed the shorelines on either side of the project area, calculating the chances that the shoreline will do what it’s supposed to do: protect the camp property by stemming the erosion while creating a marshy, micro-habitat inside the rock sill for crabs, worms and a host of juvenile sea creatures.
“If everything stays through two or three winters,” Hardaway said, “then the substrate will stabilize.”
Crichton has been at the site several days a week since construction started. As has Sara Reiter, coordinator of the Eastern Shore Resource Conservation and Development Council and a key project partner. They didn’t want to miss anything as the new shoreline took form. The project is the result of several years of planning — and represents a sea change in thinking on the part of the conservancy and others about how to adapt to rising sea levels that are part of a new reality for all that live on the Eastern Shore of Virginia and the Chesapeake.
“We started thinking about what we needed to do to protect TNC’s investments on the Eastern Shore,” said Crichton, citing more than $100 million in conservation land purchases and restoration over that last 40 years.
After the conservancy convened a group of scientists in 2008 to help assess the impacts of climate change on the natural resources — barrier islands, tidal wetlands and upland forests on the shore— Crichton said the conservacy realized, “that in order to develop meaningful solutions, we had to think about the resiliency of the communities of the shore, as well as the biodiversity that we’d been focused on.”
That epiphany led them to work more directly with local agencies that represented the economic foundations on the shore — aquaculture, agriculture and tourism. What emerged was the Eastern Shore Climate Adaptation Working Group, whose focus over the last four years has been to help local governments with planning for sealevel rise and hazard mitigation; obtain high-quality data necessary for this planning; and encourage more widespread public understanding of the effects of sea level rise. The group also endorsed continuing to protect and restore the coastal ecosystems to increase their resiliency in the face of change. “But the key,” Crichton said, “has been the local partners. The RC&D (Resource Conservation and Development Council, a local program of the Natural Resources and Conservation Service ) is recruiting volunteers for the marsh grass plantings. They are also hosting several outreach events for local marine contractors to increase local understanding and eventually expertise in building these living shorelines.”
At the same time the working group was meeting, the Virginia General Assembly had tasked VIMS to evaluate strategies to meet rising sea levels. The assembly subsequently passed legislation that promotes living shorelines as the preferred way to protect shoreline property, and Virginia agencies commenced work to make it easier for property owners to choose natural shoreline protection rather than bulkheads and riprap. VIMS conducted shoreline analyses using high-quality aerial imagery to identify shorelines at risk and the most appropriate protection methods for them.
One of these studies named Camp Occohannock’s eroding beach as a prime candidate for a living shoreline. Karen Duhring, from the wetlands program at VIMS, said that the Occohannock project is a great example of how demonstration projects can provide restoration while helping a community see how a new conservation practice can benefit everyone.
“It’s really a model project,” Duhring said, “because it’s has been developed right from the start with education in mind. All the local agencies are involved, volunteers are helping with the plantings, and it will be a showcase for the camp and everyone who sees it from the water.”
Along with the marsh grass that will fill in the near shore areas, Crichton said she hopes that the rock sills will eventually attract oyster spat. There’s a pretty good chance of this. The two men working a patch of floating oyster traps about 300 yards offshore for Broadwater Oyster Company said it’s been a good year for oyster strike. To either side of the traps, colorful flags mark bottom grounds where little neck clams are being grown. Ospreys are still active, soaring and crying overhead, while everyone and everything keeps on working or watching.
Along Occohannock Creek, it’s clear that a living shoreline is as much about creating a natural, living system as it is about making a living along the shore.