Until recently, the West River United Methodist Center had a problem. The 45-acre retreat and camp facility in Shady Side, MD, south of Annapolis, had a mile of waterfront on a popular Chesapeake Bay river. But there was no beach to speak of, with limited access to the water for swimming or wading.

Oxford MD beach

A wooden stake marks where a dune will be constructed to help protect the swimming beach and nearby road in Oxford, MD. Vegetated islands are to be installed just offshore in the Tred Avon River to buffer the shoreline from wave erosion.

Much of the shoreline had been armored long ago against erosion, once a common way of dealing with the loss of valuable waterfront. But after decades of buffeting by wind-driven waves, the wooden bulkhead was failing, and the land behind it was washing away.

“So work was going to need to be done, one way or another, on it,” recalled Chris Schlieckert, the center’s director.

Then Dave Coomes, the center’s maintenance director, met Claudia Donegan, who works on community-based restoration projects with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. She helped to persuade the staff to try a more ecologically friendly type of shoreline protection. The nonprofit Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay pitched in to help the center apply for — and get — a $1.2 million grant from the DNR.

The result is an 885-foot “living shoreline” with a cobble beach to replace the crumbling bulkhead. There’s also a newly engineered wetland to capture stormwater runoff, where shrubs and plants can soak up some of the collected rainfall.

The project is the first of 22 projects, funded to date by the DNR under a “resiliency through restoration” initiative launched in 2017, to break ground. Its aim is to help communities and individual landowners adapt to the threats to property and life posed by climate change.

“We work with local communities to provide funding for them to better understand their flood risk and their climate risk and also to address that risk,” said Nicole Carlozo, a resiliency planner in the DNR’s Chesapeake and Coastal Service.

Maryland, with more than 7,000 miles of Bay and Atlantic Ocean shoreline, is the fourth most vulnerable state in the nation to the impacts of rising sea level, a main impact of climate change. Shorelines, especially in low-lying areas, are experiencing more pounding from storms but also more frequent and severe tidal flooding — even on sunny days.

West River United Methodist Center, MD

Chris Schlieckert and Dave Coomes of the West River United Methodist Center stand along the cobble beach that replaced a failing bulkhead at the retreat and camp facility in Shady Side, MD. (Timothy B. Wheeler)

Five years ago, with funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the DNR collaborated with The Nature Conservancy to produce a coastal resiliency assessment, a tool to identify residential areas impacted by coastal hazards and to rank shorelines by their value for conservation and restoration. That has helped the DNR evaluate proposed projects for funding.

Most of the grants awarded so far are to install living shorelines, Carlozo said, but the DNR is broadening its approach to support work that often addresses more than one issue. After the devastating flash floods in Ellicott City in 2016 and 2018, she said, the department also began funding projects that help mitigate storm-driven flooding farther inland. As a result, Hyattsville in Prince George’s County received a grant to identify places where “green infrastructure” such as rain gardens, permeable pavement and wetlands, could reduce harmful flooding.

The DNR also tries to include the restoration of fish or wildlife habitat in the projects it funds, Carlozo said.

“The idea here is to showcase different types of projects and how they work,” she said, “so communities and landowners will want to replicate those types of projects.”

Interest in the grants has stretched the initiative’s resources. When it was first launched, state officials budgeted $16.55 million for 16 projects, but six have been added since then.

Next to break ground is a project at Deal Island on the Eastern Shore. An area known as Hunt’s Hill has been eroding since the 1970s, wiping out dunes as the shoreline retreats. Begun this summer in collaboration with Somerset County and other stakeholders, it will try to mimic the remaining dunes.

One of the most ambitious projects is in Oxford, also on the Eastern Shore. To lessen increasingly frequent flooding, the town will build up a low sand dune along a swimming beach on the Tred Avon River.

West River, MD, constructed wetland

In addition to a living shoreline, the Methodist retreat center got an engineered wetland installed to capture and absorb stormwater runoff before it could carry silt and other pollutants to the West River. (Timothy B. Wheeler)

“Seven or eight times a year, they’re getting these high-tide flooding events that are not even related to a storm,” said Amanda Poskaitis, coastal resilience program manager at National Wildlife Federation. The Washington-area based environmental group has partnered with the DNR and the town to design and fund the work.

Sometimes, Poskaitis said, the flooding blocks a road that is the sole access for reaching several waterfront homes, and those residents can’t get out.

The project will include a trio of “living breakwaters” — small, vegetated islands — a short distance off the beach to dampen wave energy and storm surge.

“I would describe it as utilizing natural features to protect a shoreline,” Poskaitis said, “incorporating sand and marsh habitat — not just armoring it with a bulkhead or seawall.” There’ll be some rocks placed to provide stability, but it will be done “in a unique way,” she added.

“We’re excited to see a concept design that incorporated as much living material, vegetation, as possible,” the DNR’s Carlozo said. The project planners and the contractor chosen to design the project, Underwood & Associates of Annapolis, have consulted closely with town officials and residents to strike the right balance between ensuring continued recreational use of the beach and protecting the shoreline, she said.

With assistance from the National Wildlife Federation and a commitment of matching funds from the DNR, the town applied to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation coastal resilience fund to construct the beach portion of the design. Counting the match, total funding is $2.8 million. Construction is still some time off, as the project must go through regulatory review and gain permits.

Even so, it only addresses one of several flooding threats in Oxford, Poskaitis noted. More will be needed, but she said, “it’s a first step.”

Meanwhile, in Shady Side, the Methodist retreat center’s director said its shoreline makeover is already paying dividends.

“We’re trying to help people connect with nature while they’re here,” Schlieckert said. “Removing the bulkhead and creating a place where people can really access the water is just going to be phenomenal for our mission and ministry, using creation to help people connect with God … So, it’s pretty remarkable.”

Tim Wheeler is the Bay Journal's associate editor and senior writer, based in Maryland. You can reach him at 410-409-3469 or twheeler@bayjournal.com.

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