Teams create ‘living shorelines’ to fight coastal erosion and rebuild habitats
The Texas Gulf coastline is ever-changing. Wind, waves, tides and storms are just some of the factors that move sand and soil, causing erosion and eliminating the natural shoreline and its habitats.
But Haille Leija, habitat restoration manager with the Galveston Bay Foundation, said her organization is working with landowners — private individuals and companies — along the Texas coast and Galveston Bay to rethink their waterfront properties’ boundaries and create living shorelines, which are protected and stabilized coastal edges made of natural materials.
Historically, she said, most landowners would create hardened shorelines — bulkheads, concrete materials piled on at the water’s edge — at the property’s perimeter.
“This is what you see in much of the Galveston Bay shoreline, particularly in residential and commercial areas, protected by bulkheads or other revetment structures,” Leija said. “Our goal is to encourage the use of an eco-friendlier approach when landowners wish to improve the protection of their shoreline, they purchase a new property or wish to simply add habitat in front of their existing bulkhead.”
Although the length of the shoreline is variable, depending on how many estuaries and bayous are included, Galveston Bay Foundation is interested in about 1,480 miles of waterfront property, Leija said. The area includes the entire bay system within four counties.
With natural materials such as grasses, sand and organic materials, the shoreline becomes expanded and encourages the growth of more plants and food for birds, fish and other water creatures.
By rebuilding naturally, the shoreline becomes alive again, teeming with vegetation and providing habitat for oysters, mussels, barnacles, welk and crabs, as well as giving birds — egrets and herons — a place to feed on krill and other crustaceans in a protected marsh, Leija said.
“We have been successful with the areas we are working on,” she said, adding that the grasses embedded along the shoreline also act as a filter to cleanse the bay water of sediments and pollutants, providing cleaner water in the area. Most of the projects are in the calmer waters of Galveston Bay, rather than property along the Gulf of Mexico, which is more turbulent and used as recreational beaches.
To mitigate soil erosion, smooth cordgrass or saltmarsh cordgrass is planted in the bay waters between 50 and 200 feet off the existing shoreline, Leija said. This plant grows year around — even in freezes — and has a deep root system, going about 3 feet into the sandy soil. It’s a native species and can grow in salt or fresh water. Cordgrass uses rhizomes, stems that send out roots and shoots from their nodes, allowing the plant to easily colonize new places quickly.
Old cooling ponds no longer used by NRG Energy Co. and adjacent to Cedar Bayou in Baytown are leased as marsh nurseries to grow the cordgrass. The EcoCenter, sponsored by NRG affiliate company Reliant Energy, allows scientists from the Galveston Bay Foundation and the Natural Resource Conservation Service to harvest wild seed in the fall from existing marshes in the bay to refurbish the ponds. Once it’s harvested and replanted along the shore, more seeds are placed in the knee-deep water in the 7-acre plot to be grown and moved to restoration sites, Leija said.
To stabilize some areas of the coast, large stones are sometimes placed along the original property line in the water to make a more natural barrier and help break any wave action. Mesh bags with oyster shells also are used as barriers.
The Texas General Land Office promotes living shorelines and has incentives for property owners who choose to develop these natural habitats along the coast, said Leija, who also has been an environmental consultant. The land office promotes ecologically and economically sound coastal management practices and occasionally offers state grant funding for projects on the Texas coast. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation also assist with grants and information.
Warren Sullivan, who with his sister owns 225 acres of land that has been in his family since 1926 and runs along the Trinity Bay in Anahuac, has been involved in the living shoreline initiative since 2010, he said. Sullivan estimated they have lost about 25 acres to erosion. Originally, the family farm grew rice or cabbage and cattle grazed on it. Now, Sullivan grows vetiver grass, a unique plant that produces essential oils in perfumes and health care products, as well as helping to control erosion and remediating contaminates in the soil.
To create the living shoreline, a rock wall was constructed along the Sullivans’ original boundary and the grasses were planted between the rocks and the battered shoreline. The ongoing project has created a sustainable marsh on the property where it had eroded away.
“In theory, the rock wall kills the energy of the aggressive wave and wind action as it comes over the wall and sedimentation falls out of the wave behind the rock wall, thus accreting sedimentation build up,” Warren said.
The reclaimed land won’t be farmed but has attracted all types of wildlife creatures, from insects to birds to shrimp and fish.
“I noticed immediately after the first project seeing fiddler crabs creating their habitat again, as well as providing a safe habitat for small fish from larger predator fish,” Warren said. “It won’t be usable except as a natural habitat and that’s OK.”