Tough as nails, living shorelines abound in Okaloosa and Walton counties
A sea wall is at its greatest strength on the day it’s installed, says Rachel Gwin.
In comparison, natural living shorelines “grow stronger with time,” said Gwin, who is the restoration coordinator for the Choctawhatchee Basin Alliance of Northwest Florida State College. “They’re low maintenance and not very costly to repair.”
The nonprofit, Santa Rosa Beach-based Basin Alliance has worked in various ways to sustain healthy waterways for a quarter of a century. According to the organization, a living shoreline is a shoreline management option that uses living plants, recycled oyster shells, fossilized oyster shell, sand fill, or a combination of natural structures with riprap or offshore breakwaters to protect property from erosion.
From the archives: Basin Alliance’s simple mission: Preserve local waterways
Since about 2009, alliance employees and volunteers have installed and helped install living shorelines on dozens of privately and publicly owned properties around Choctawhatchee Bay and some of its connecting water bodies such as Santa Rosa Sound. Most of the living shorelines stand within 10 feet of the mean high water line.
Besides benefiting many residential parcels, the shorelines stand guard at places such as Eden Gardens State Park next to Tucker Bayou in Point Washington, Live Oak Point on Choctawhatchee Bay near Santa Rosa Beach, Marina Cove at the Bluewater Bay Marina, Sound Park in Fort Walton Beach and Florida Park, Lincoln Park and Shipyard Point Park on Boggy Bayou in Valparaiso.
Marsh grasses that help remove pollutants from stormwater runoff grow along some of the shoreline at Fort Walton Beach’s Liza Jackson Park which, like Sound Park, abuts the Santa Rosa Sound. And late this year, the alliance plans to start installing oyster shell reefs for erosion control and additional water cleansing on a long stretch of the Liza Jackson Park shore.
Other upcoming living shoreline projects on public lands include those planned by Okaloosa County officials for Veterans Park and soundside access No. 2 on Okaloosa Island, and one planned by Fort Walton Beach officials for Fort Walton Landing along Santa Rosa Sound.
Riders on the storm
Oyster shell reefs used as offshore breakwaters in many living shoreline projects held up very well during Hurricane Michael in October 2018 and Hurricane Sally last September, Gwin said.
“During major storms like hurricanes with large storm surge, you will get seawall failures with the water rushing in,” she said. “But living shorelines are built with breaks or gaps between the reef sections that help slow down oncoming wave energy and erosion.”
Sediment carried in on currents and waves, meanwhile, helps build the shore, Gwin added.
The reefs and shoreline grasses provide habitat for oysters, juvenile fish such as gobies, bennies, pinfish and mangrove snapper, and blue, hermit and stone crabs. Large black drum that like to eat oysters have been spotted at Live Oak Point, Gwin said.
“We have a pretty healthy oyster population in the bay,” she said. “They usually spawn about twice a year, in the spring and fall. Oyster larvae float around seeking hard substrate. They will settle on oyster shells and spawn future generations.”
One adult oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water per day, she said.
The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and Okaloosa County have agreed to split the cost of a $3 million project to install a living shoreline that will protect about 1,100 feet of Veterans Park.
The 17.5-acre county park abuts Choctawhatchee Bay and lies next to the Destin-Fort Walton Beach Convention Center on Okaloosa Island.
During the past couple decades, about 40 to 50 feet of the park’s shoreline has been eroded by waves, winds, boat wakes and storm surge. Powerful winds and storm surge from Hurricane Sally left behind sharp cliffs and further widespread shoreline erosion.
In the living shoreline project for Veterans Park, oyster shell reefs likely will be installed as breakwaters to help build up the shoreline and native upland grasses and seed grasses will be planted to help stabilize it, county Coastal Resource Manager Alex Fogg said.
The project could get underway at the end of this year, he said.
In late May, the County Commission approved plans for several major changes, including the placement of a living shoreline, at the county-owned soundside access No. 2. Once it’s under contract, the work is anticipated to take six to nine months.
The installation of a living shoreline and work on other upgrades at Fort Walton Landing will begin as soon as city officials receive the final permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, city spokesman Doug Rainer said.