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The Living Shoreline

Rhode Island


Rhode Island Living Shoreline Fact Sheet

Nature-based strategies for shoreline protection offer hope in the battle against coastal erosion.

Living Shoreline at Narrow River

View the installation of Rhode Island's first "living shoreline"

The Conservancy celebrated Earth Day with a Rhode Island first – the installation of an innovative “living shoreline.” This took place at Narrow River, part of the John H. Chafee National Wildlife Refuge network in Narragansett.

After three cold but productive days in the water, the job was finished. Because the technique was new, there were some minor setbacks along the way. But, in partnership with the Department of Environmental Management and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a small group of Conservancy scientists and conservation leaders had successfully installed the state’s first living shoreline, a natural materials-based solution to marshland erosion. They used ropes, stakes and hammers to secure large coconut fiber “coir logs” and oyster shell bags across 500 feet of eroding marshland coast.

When it comes to protecting shoreline, solutions come in two flavors: the hard kind and the soft kind.

Hard armament, which is currently used to stabilize a full 30% of Rhode Island’s coastline, consists of rock, wooden, or metal bulkheads. While hard armament can have benefits, particularly in environments with vigorous waves, it can also carry numerous disadvantages. These include disrupting the natural processes required to keep coastlines healthy, hindering coastal access, and actually exacerbating surrounding coastal erosion. Currently, over 45% of Rhode Island’s hard structures are failing.

Because of this, the Conservancy has turned to new soft solutions like the living shoreline to protect Rhode Island’s coasts. These are innovative solutions that use biodegradable materials and natural elements both to stabilize the shoreline and promote healthy coastal waters.

The Conservancy is using the living shoreline at the Chafee Refuge as a small-scale prototype to test a big concept.

Since this type of soft solution is new to Rhode Island, it must be tested in local waters before being applied to marshlands statewide. In theory, the coconut fiber coir logs and recycled oyster shells should both trap sediment and attract a new oyster population to absorb and dissipate the energy of incoming waves, protecting the shoreline from further degradation. In addition, a booming oyster population will promote healthy coastal waters by carrying out natural, beneficial processes such as filtering the river water and fostering nutrient cycling.

These processes not only benefit wildlife and the environment – they also have a positive effect on the economy. Analysis from outside of Rhode Island shows that for every $1 spent on shoreline stabilization, as much as $1.75 is returned to the economy in the form of improvements to coastal resources. This return doesn’t even include shoreline stabilization’s protective effects on coastal property value!

Leading scientists from the Conservancy and the University of Rhode Island will monitor this project over the next two years to determine its effectiveness.

By monitoring the Chafee Refuge and measuring the living shoreline’s effects on dissipating wave energy, trapping new sediment, and improving the natural, beneficial processes needed for healthy coastal waters, a team of scientists will determine if the solution is ready for a wide-scale application. They have installed the living shoreline in two strategic locations – one with high-energy waves and one with low-energy waves – to see where it can hold up and do its job.

Finding new solutions is critical, as Rhode Island has lost over 53% of its marsh habitat to erosion.

Coastal erosion results from storms and tidal surges, among other things. With these events happening more frequently in recent history, Rhode Island is losing marshland at an increasing rate.

The Chafee Refuge’s Narrow River, which is the home to threatened and endangered species such as the salt marsh sparrow, has lost more than 15% (26.5 acres lost, 175 acres total) of its marsh habitat. By testing the living shoreline at this location, the Conservancy is not only determining its value for future use statewide, but is also working to protect a critical and imperiled Rhode Island habitat.

Stay tuned for a video later in the year on this project as well as the Conservancy’s other cutting-edge work in oceans and coasts!

If you would like to learn more about our exciting work in oceans and coasts, please contact our staff at ri@tnc.org.

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