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

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

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.