As storms worsen and sea level rises, “living shorelines” might protect Connecticut beaches

East Shore Park in New Haven is one of many locations along the Connecticut shoreline that is experiencing erosion as sea level rises and the number of severe storms increases. Here, the beach is becoming thinner and thinner, and getting back to the park sidewalk requires climbing up the steep eroded slope behind the beach. Photo by Ben Crnic.

By Ben Crnic | UConn Journalism
July 2021

Vis­i­tors to East Shore Park in New Haven aren’t able to eas­i­ly stroll along the beach there. It’s not closed. It’s being phys­i­cal­ly cut off from the rest of the park by erosion.

Get­ting to the beach requires get­ting down a steep slope, and there’s a good chance of slip­ping on the loose sand and dirt. Storms and high wave ener­gy have eat­en away at this thin­ning beach, and the few patch­es of veg­e­ta­tion are in the process of being flood­ed. Slop­ing rock walls called revet­ments built to stop this ero­sion have not done enough to stop it from happening.

These pre­ven­ta­tive mea­sures have end­ed up iso­lat­ing the beach from the park even more, said New Haven City engi­neer Gio­van­ni Zinn.

The city is attempt­ing a new solu­tion to both pro­tect and inte­grate the beach back into East Shore Park: a liv­ing shoreline. 

Liv­ing shore­lines are ero­sion con­trol projects that focus on safe­guard­ing coastal habi­tats. The one being built at East Shore Park will con­sist of native plant­i­ngs that sta­bi­lize the beach and mim­ic nat­ur­al ero­sion con­trol process­es, as well as stone walls called sills placed just off-shore that break the wave ener­gy but don’t block off the shore entirely. 

We real­ly want­ed to take a dif­fer­ent attack, a more nat­ur­al attack and use a liv­ing shore­line as an oppor­tu­ni­ty to not only pro­tect the park, but also cre­ate a beau­ti­ful nat­ur­al space to enhance the park,” Zinn said. New Haven is cur­rent­ly wait­ing for all of the required state and fed­er­al per­mits for the project, and Zinn esti­mates it will take 6 months to a year for full approval to start con­struc­tion. In the mean­time, more of the coast­line is like­ly to be washed away by the encroach­ing waves. 

Liv­ing shore­lines are becom­ing more com­mon in Con­necti­cut as beach ero­sion from storms and waves and sea lev­el rise threat­en coast­lines. The Con­necti­cut Depart­ment of Ener­gy and Envi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion (DEEP) pre­dicts sea lev­el will rise by 1 foot 8 inch­es by 2050. That amount of sea lev­el rise does not bode well for Con­necti­cut beach­es when com­bined with an increased num­ber of severe storms hit­ting the state every year. Accord­ing to UConn’s Con­necti­cut Insti­tute for Resilience and Cli­mate Adap­ta­tion (CIRCA), high­er sea lev­els can cause worse ero­sion and more fre­quent flood­ing. It also means a high tide or storm surge will cause exten­sive damage. 

East Shore Park
East Shore Park in New Haven is one of many loca­tions along the Con­necti­cut shore­line that is expe­ri­enc­ing ero­sion as sea lev­el ris­es and the num­ber of severe storms increas­es. Here, the beach is becom­ing thin­ner and thin­ner, and get­ting back to the park side­walk requires climb­ing up the steep erod­ed slope behind the beach. Pho­to by Ben Crnic.

Con­necti­cut com­mu­ni­ties like New Haven stand to lose a lot from increased flood­ing. The non-prof­it research and tech­nol­o­gy group First Street Foun­da­tion pre­dicts New Haven will face a 51% increase in finan­cial loss from cli­mate change, and that the aver­age expect­ed loss per prop­er­ty from flood­ing will rise from $4,063 in 2021 to $5,226 in 2051. 

A 2017 study by the Uni­ver­si­ty of New Haven also found the eco­nom­ic cost of 1 meter of sea lev­el rise in the city would be $1.3 bil­lion, and $2.2 bil­lion if it increased by 2 meters. With ero­sion increas­ing in cities such as New Haven and Bridge­port, this will make flood­ing even more com­mon as beach­es lose integrity. 

Kevin O’Brien, a super­vis­ing envi­ron­men­tal ana­lyst from DEEP, said Con­necti­cut will soon have to deal with the threats of sea lev­el rise and coastal erosion. 

The impacts are there. We see it. It is hap­pen­ing. So the more that we can be think­ing about how to be proac­tive about that and respon­si­bly man­age it and adjust to it, the bet­ter off we’re going to be. At some point, you’re going to wake up and [life is] going to be rad­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent for peo­ple,” O’Brien said.

Traditional erosion control methods won’t cut it

Aerial view of East Haven coastline
This view of an East Haven coast­line fea­tures many ero­sion con­trol struc­tures such as sea­walls and groins. The state’s shore­line faces the threat of ero­sion as sea lev­el ris­es and more storms bat­ter the beach­es. Pho­to from CT DEEP.

As towns and cities on the shore­line face this threat, find­ing an effec­tive method of coastal pro­tec­tion becomes a pri­or­i­ty. Right now, tra­di­tion­al ero­sion and flood con­trol struc­tures such as sea­walls and revet­ments are com­mon along Connecticut’s shore­line and are found in towns such as East Haven and Bran­ford. How­ev­er, these struc­tures can phys­i­cal­ly block coastal habi­tats from the water, accord­ing to Dr. Juliana Bar­rett, an asso­ciate exten­sion edu­ca­tor for Con­necti­cut Sea Grant. 

One of the big issues with a sea­wall is that you put up the sea­wall and you’re block­ing the land water inter­face,” Bar­rett said. 

Susan Jacob­son, anoth­er super­vis­ing envi­ron­men­tal ana­lyst with DEEP, has a sim­ple expla­na­tion for sep­a­rat­ing liv­ing shore­lines from tra­di­tion­al ero­sion and flood con­trol structures. 

If a tur­tle isn’t able to get from the water to the resource behind it, it’s a flood and ero­sion con­trol struc­ture,” Jacob­son said. With a liv­ing shore­line, the tur­tle would not be blocked off from the water, accord­ing to Jacobson. 

O’Brien, the DEEP envi­ron­men­tal ana­lyst, said tra­di­tion­al ero­sion and flood con­trol meth­ods can both harm beach­es and coastal habitats. 

[Ero­sion con­trol struc­tures] gen­er­al­ly result in neg­a­tive impacts to coastal resources. You know, if you put a groin in to stop ero­sion, you may get some [sand accu­mu­la­tion] grow­ing on one side and then you’re starv­ing the beach. On the oth­er side, if you install riprap or sea­walls, a lot of the ani­mals and organ­isms that use that near shore area for breed­ing or feed­ing or roost­ing or what­ev­er go away,” O’Brien said.

Sea­walls can even cause beach­es to retreat and become more erod­ed, O’Brien explained. When wave ener­gy hits the wall, this ener­gy trav­els down­ward and “scours out” the sand. Because of this, he thinks these struc­tures are not a good long-term solution.

Anoth­er draw­back of tra­di­tion­al flood con­trol mea­sures like sea­walls is the cost to replace them, said Alex Krof­ta, an eco­log­i­cal restora­tion project man­ag­er from the New Haven non­prof­it envi­ron­men­tal action group Save the Sound.

[Sea­walls] often have a design life and they don’t last for­ev­er. And when you do end up hav­ing to replace those, that I think is where the costs real­ly add up,” Krof­ta said. 

Bar­rett, the edu­ca­tor from Con­necti­cut Sea Grant, is con­fi­dent peo­ple will grow used to the idea of a liv­ing shore­line when it comes to pro­tect­ing the state’s coast once they under­stand how a liv­ing shore­line works. 

Liv­ing shore­lines are much more ben­e­fi­cial for coastal habi­tats, Bar­rett argued. They don’t block off coastal habi­tats from the shore­line, and they focus on pro­tect­ing areas such as marsh­es and wetlands. 

Peo­ple don’t real­ize the long-term envi­ron­men­tal dam­age that can come from hav­ing a sea­wall. We’re all very com­fort­able with the idea of a wall. And we’ve got­ten used to see­ing them,” Bar­rett said. “Liv­ing shore­lines are new and dif­fer­ent, and it’s like, well, what is this? How is this going to pro­tect me or my prop­er­ty? But peo­ple love going to the shore. The real­ly impor­tant thing is that liv­ing shore­lines are help­ing to pro­tect the envi­ron­ment as well as issues that peo­ple have with coastal ero­sion and to some degree flooding.”

Green and Hybrid Liv­ing Shorelines

Green techniques

There are two main groups of liv­ing shore­lines, Bar­rett explained. There are “green tech­niques” that use mold­able biodegrad­able logs shaped to fit the shore­line and also make use of plants to both pre­vent ero­sion and cre­ate habi­tat. There are also “hybrid tech­niques” that use both these green tech­niques and off-shore rock sills or break­wa­ters that damp­en the wave ener­gy and allow a marsh to build up over time.

The liv­ing shore­line in devel­op­ment at East Shore Park in New Haven is an exam­ple of this hybrid tech­nique. Accord­ing to city engi­neer Zinn, rock sills will be placed off­shore at the inter­tidal mark to break the wave ener­gy. Plants will be added to fill tidal marsh­es which will also absorb this ener­gy. In addi­tion, the shore­line will be grad­ed back into a more grad­ual slope that is more resilient to ero­sion. Tidal wet­lands inside the park will also be expand­ed, cre­at­ing more habitat. 

Oth­er notable liv­ing shore­lines in Con­necti­cut not only pro­tect coastal habi­tats, but also infra­struc­ture. The Hep­burn Dune liv­ing shore­line project in Old Say­brook was cre­at­ed because the beach and dune sys­tem were breached dur­ing a bad storm, Bar­rett said. 

The breach caused home­own­ers in the area to become con­cerned that their homes would be threat­ened by flood­ing if anoth­er breach occurred, which led to the devel­op­ment of the Hep­burn Dune liv­ing shore­line. The project includes a process called beach nour­ish­ment that con­sists of replen­ish­ing the beach with sand, as well as rock sills that break wave energy. 

Will living shorelines work?

Instal­la­tion of rock sills for the Hep­burn Dune liv­ing shore­line project in Old Say­brook. These sills slow down wave ener­gy, pro­tect­ing the beach behind them. Pho­to cour­tesy of Juliana Barrett/CT Sea Grant

Because liv­ing shore­lines are not as famil­iar as oth­er meth­ods of flood con­trol such as sea­walls, there is a sense of uncer­tain­ty as to how well they will work in the long-run as sea lev­el rises. 

O’Brien not­ed that liv­ing shore­line projects are new to the state so there isn’t much evi­dence to point to when pre­dict­ing the long term effects. 

I think the biggest draw­back right now is there’s real­ly not a big long-term oper­a­tional his­to­ry here in Con­necti­cut,” O’Brien said. “Hope­ful­ly if we were to have the same con­ver­sa­tion in 5 to 10 years, the ones that we’ve put in place to func­tion have per­formed suc­cess­ful­ly. We’ve improved on things, and now there’s a greater famil­iar­i­ty and a greater con­fi­dence in the public.”

To a cer­tain extent it’s an invest­ment by the state of Con­necti­cut to fig­ure out how these things work. So it’s a pilot instal­la­tion in a sense,” Zinn said in regards to the East Shore Park project. 

This invest­ment may be worth it. Krof­ta of Save the Sound said he is con­fi­dent liv­ing shore­lines will be bet­ter suit­ed for mod­i­fi­ca­tion than tra­di­tion­al ero­sion con­trol meth­ods as time goes on. 

It’s not just build­ing [the liv­ing shore­line] and wip­ing your hands and walk­ing away,” Krof­ta said. “But build­ing it and then set­ting up a pret­ty robust mon­i­tor­ing pro­gram and adjust­ing as time goes on as need­ed to make sure not only that they are work­ing well, but also that we’re learn­ing from the exam­ples that we’re able to implement.” 

Zinn also thinks the project at East Shore Park will be changed over time. “It will require some work and main­te­nance and we’ll find out what the lessons are,” he said. 

There is some evi­dence that liv­ing shore­lines can work in Con­necti­cut. A liv­ing shore­line project in Strat­ford Point was built in 2014 con­sist­ing of arti­fi­cial reef balls that both break up the wave ener­gy hit­ting the beach and pro­vide habi­tat for clams, mus­sels and fish with­in their cracks and crevices. The arti­fi­cial reef offered pro­tec­tion for the degrad­ed tidal wet­land behind it, and accord­ing to O’Brien, the Strat­ford Point wet­land became much health­i­er after the reef was installed. 

One rea­son liv­ing shore­lines may be ben­e­fi­cial as sea lev­el ris­es is because struc­tures like sills cause sed­i­ment to accu­mu­late on the shore, strength­en­ing marsh­es and oth­er coastal habi­tats. They do this by break­ing the wave ener­gy and phys­i­cal­ly slow­ing the waves down, caus­ing the water to drop sand that it was car­ry­ing onto the shore. This is anoth­er rea­son the Strat­ford Point liv­ing shore­line was so successful. 

Accord­ing to Jacob­son, as sea lev­el ris­es, the sed­i­ment accu­mu­la­tion from this process could the­o­ret­i­cal­ly increase and strength­en coastal habi­tats. This depends though on the rate of sea lev­el rise, as if it is too fast these habi­tats may sim­ply be drowned out instead. 

O’Brien admits that some­times it isn’t pos­si­ble to com­plete­ly pre­vent beach erosion. 

In many ways, with none of these things, whether it’s a liv­ing shore­line or a tra­di­tion­al flood and ero­sion con­trol struc­ture, you’re not going to [pre­vent ero­sion] if you’re in an area that’s absolute­ly prone to severe ero­sion. You may be buy­ing your­self some time, but it’s fool­ish to think that you’re going to put in one par­tic­u­lar thing, wipe your hands and be like, okay, I’m done. No prob­lem here. If Moth­er Nature is hell bent on tak­ing away some of that shore­line over time, it will,” O’Brien said. 

The cost and future of liv­ing shore­lines in Connecticut

So far, most of the fund­ing for liv­ing shore­line projects in Con­necti­cut has come from grants, as well as fund­ing from the munic­i­pal­i­ties installing these projects. The CIRCA Project award­ed a $66,000 grant to sup­port the Hep­burn Dune liv­ing shore­line project in Old Say­brook, accord­ing to the organization’s coor­di­na­tor Kather­ine Lund.

The East Shore Park project in New Haven is expect­ed to cost about $4 mil­lion to con­vert 3000 feet of shoreline. 

It’s a fair­ly expen­sive project,” Zinn said, “but it is a pret­ty exten­sive project.” 

The per­mit­ting process for liv­ing shore­lines also proves to be sub­stan­tial, as state per­mits are required from DEEP and fed­er­al per­mits are required from the Nation­al Ocean­ic and Atmos­pher­ic Admin­is­tra­tion (NOAA) and the Army Corps of Engi­neers. How­ev­er, per­mit­ting a liv­ing shore­line is an eas­i­er process, Lund said. 

If some­one wants to put in a more hard­ened struc­ture, like putting up some kind of wall, it’s actu­al­ly a lot hard­er to per­mit these projects,” Lund said. 

DEEP is active­ly dis­cour­ag­ing the con­struc­tion of new flood and ero­sion con­trol struc­tures in Con­necti­cut, accord­ing to Jacob­son. CT Gen­er­al Statute 22a-92 pro­motes “non­struc­tur­al solu­tions to flood and ero­sion prob­lems” such as liv­ing shore­lines. This statute also pro­hibits the con­struc­tion of new sea­walls, groins and oth­er tra­di­tion­al struc­tures in Con­necti­cut except for endan­gered build­ings built before 1995, roads and oth­er infra­struc­ture need­ing pro­tec­tion, ceme­tery grounds close to the shore­line and har­bors need­ing protection. 

We don’t want new hard­ened shore­line flood and ero­sion con­trol struc­tures. We’re try­ing to main­tain the nat­ur­al rela­tion­ship with these shore­line fea­tures,” Jacob­son said. Because of this statute, more peo­ple look­ing to pro­tect their homes and busi­ness­es from ero­sion may be forced to install liv­ing shorelines. 

When peo­ple don’t have the option of putting in walls, they’re going to have liv­ing shore­lines as their only oth­er option,” Jacob­son said. Ulti­mate­ly, the increase in liv­ing shore­lines could even­tu­al­ly increase the amount of wet­land habi­tat on the CT shore­line, accord­ing to Jacobson.

DEEP is also try­ing to moti­vate towns to cre­ate more liv­ing shore­lines by offer­ing a cer­tain num­ber of projects an expe­dit­ed per­mit­ting process, accord­ing to Lund. 

There is some oppo­si­tion to these projects, though. Because many liv­ing shore­lines involve fill­ing in inter­tidal areas with sed­i­ment, rock sills or wet­land habi­tats, this takes away from fish­ing grounds. This caus­es the Nation­al Marine Fish­ery Ser­vices to push back against the liv­ing shore­line projects. 

Some­times [the Nation­al Marine Fish­ery Ser­vices] require huge fees for mit­i­ga­tion. A town wants to do a good thing and they’re pun­ish­ing it, and it’s not good. We’re not send­ing a good mes­sage there. And it’s got­ten a lit­tle bit polit­i­cal,” Jacob­son said. 

Look­ing beyond Con­necti­cut, liv­ing shore­lines are still being encour­aged at the fed­er­al lev­el though. The U.S. House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives passed the “Liv­ing Shore­line Act” in 2019, which directs NOAA to award grants to state and local gov­ern­ments in order to build more of these projects. The bill made its way to the Sen­ate, where it was co-spon­sored by Con­necti­cut Sens. Chris Mur­phy and Richard Blu­men­thal. Accord­ing to Murphy’s Wash­ing­ton D.C. office, there has been no action on the Liv­ing Shore­line bill since last Con­gress, but there are plans to rein­tro­duce it to the senate. 

Back in New Haven, Zinn will con­tin­ue push­ing for the East Shore Park project. He thinks it will con­nect the beach to the park once again and bring more vis­i­tors as a result. 

Enhanc­ing that con­nec­tion to the water is some­thing that peo­ple are very excit­ed about. We want peo­ple to enjoy it,” Zinn said. 

Addi­tion­al reading: 

Ben Crnic is a senior at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Con­necti­cut who is dou­ble major­ing in jour­nal­ism and geo­science. This sto­ry was pro­duced in Spring 2021 as part of an inde­pen­dent study project under the guid­ance of UConn Asso­ciate Jour­nal­ism Prof. Marie K. Shana­han. This sto­ry was repub­lished by The Con­necti­cut Mir­ror.