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The time to start is now:

How implementing natural infrastructure solutions
can improve and protect our coasts

Shannon E. Cunniff
Environmental Defense Fund

ABSTRACT 2013; Scyphers et al. 2011; Marani et

Wide beaches, broad dunes, dense mangroves and maritime forests, healthy oyster al. 2011). Mangrove forests may be the
and coral reefs, and thick salt marshes all can reduce damages associated with sea superheroes of natural defenses, as they
level rise and coastal storms. Natural defenses work, are cost-effective, and provide a reduce the damage of tsunamis and ty-
myriad of other benefits. We know enough now to confidently deploy these solutions phoons by attenuating waves, reducing
for some circumstances. Certainly, natural defenses can be used as part of a multiple wind speed, and catching debris (Cheong
lines of defense approach – providing protection from more frequent, smaller storm et al. 2013; Tanaka 2009; Cochard 2008;
events and lessening the energy punch of large waves and high winds on built, or Algoni 2008;). Natural defenses also
“gray,” infrastructure. However, we lack sufficient modeling, data, and field experi- enhance the effectiveness of traditional
ence regarding the performance of natural defenses under more severe conditions. hardened infrastructure by providing
Creating risk-reduction engineering design literacy regarding natural defenses will an extra line of defense between the
hasten the acceptance and expansion of natural defenses as key components for sea and the structure. Assuming their
building coastal community resilience. Development of engineering guidelines that incremental risk reduction benefits are
include performance evaluation and monitoring recommendations, followed by quantified, they could even result in less
extensive outreach and training, is proposed. intrusive (lower, smaller) seawalls and

other structures.
veryone seems to love the sea- multiple benefits to the community
Customary strategies to adapt and
shore. The coastal floodplains of (Figure 1). Improvement of water qual-
cope with flood waters include drainage
the United States house 16.4 mil- ity, capture of fresh water, protection of
improvements, building elevation, and
lion people (NOAA 2012). More than 5 groundwater, enhanced fisheries, and
flood warning and evacuation. Com-
million people live at an elevation of 4 space for recreation are ecosystem ser-
munities in the Hampton Roads area of
feet or less above high tide (Strauss et vices vitally important to the economic
southeast Virginia are now considering
al. 2012) and are extremely vulnerable well-being of coastal communities. Of
the idea of systems of sumps (low spaces
to sea level rise, coastal storms, and hur- course, by protecting and restoring our
that collect water) and wetlands to serve
ricane storm surges. We want to live “on coasts’ natural defenses, we also enhance
as ways to “live with water,” by capturing
the edge”– both literally and figuratively. the environmental resilience of our
incursions of beach or back bay waters
If populations continue to flock to our coastal and marine ecosystems.
from king tides, storm water runoff, and
shores, combined with the effects of sea
Protection and restoration of natural coastal storms. Over time, as sea levels
level rise and hurricane storm surge,
defenses fit into the three basic strategies rise, these same areas might become
the economic and human toll of coastal
employed to address storm flood dam- systems of canals and wetlands that form
flooding will grow. This will be the case
ages: defend, adapt, and retreat. These the backbone of attractive water-oriented
— according to Munich Re, the world’s
strategies are not mutually exclusive in living – much like the canals that exist
largest reinsurance firm (Ceres 2014) —
place or time; rather they are mutually throughout the Netherlands.
even if hurricanes do not become more
supportive. Floodwalls, shoreline stabi-
frequent or more severe. Buyouts and relocation away from
lization, breakwaters, groins, beach nour-
flood-prone areas are retreat strategies.
Benefits of restoring natural defenses ishment, and dune creation are defensive
Sadly, “retreat” evokes for some a sense
Especially vulnerable communities approaches. Other natural features also
of having failed or admitting defeat.
are looking for cost-effective solutions help to defend the coast from waves
For high-risk areas, it is a cost-effective
to cope with coastal flooding risks in a and reduce the damage caused by storm
strategy that creates space for new oppor-
manner that reflects community values, surges. Every natural defense solution
tunities. For example, vacated land can
interests, needs, and resources. Some mentioned above can attenuate waves and
be used as public space, temporary com-
are looking seriously at managing and lessen wave energy to reduce erosion and
mercial uses (e.g. seasonal pop-up stores,
restoring their natural defenses – beaches, diminish the power of storm waves (Table
camping sites), and habitat restoration. If
dunes, shellfish and coral reefs, wetlands, 1). For example, oyster reefs, depending
communities install wetlands, dunes or
mangroves and maritime forests — as a on their size and orientation, can attenu-
maritime forests, then that habitat also
first line of defense that also provides ate midsize waves (2-5 feet) (USACE
Shore & Beach  Vol. 84, No. 1  Winter 2016 Page 29
Figure 1: Multiple lines of defense concept as presented by the Corps of Engineers’ North Atlantic Comprehensive
Coastal Study (2015).
helps defend the coast from the effects the subject of ongoing research by the design effort to yield engineering guide-
of storms. Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). lines that allow the U.S. Army Corps of
Engineers (Corps), the Federal Emergen-
Natural defenses Improving engineering confidence cy Management Agency, and state, local
are cost-effective in natural defenses and tribal decision-makers to approve
Data from the Gulf of Mexico indicate Engineers seek a high level of preci- and fund projects using natural defenses.
that restoring natural defenses can be far sion to be confident in and sign off on We need to define performance success,
more cost-effective in preventing storm designs and their expected performance. study installed projects, and scrutinize
damages than traditional levees (Reguero We lack an understanding of the factors failures. This means collecting specific
et al. 2014). In some circumstances, that govern how natural defenses will be- information important to engineers on
restoring natural defenses may be less have during and after extreme conditions project designs, construction materials,
expensive than hardened shorelines. Fer- and how effective they are for addressing maintenance methods and life-cycle
rario et al. (2014) found that the benefits storm surge. Decades, even centuries, project costs to be able to create risk
derived from wave height reduction by of experience designing seawalls and reduction engineering design literacy for
coral reefs were greater than or equal erosion control structures ensure repro- natural defenses.
to the benefits derived from constructed ducible results and confidence. We have
low-crested detached breakwaters — and learned what materials, designs, and Concurrent with these efforts, we need
attained at a much lower median cost. siting work best from an engineering to accelerate numerical modeling and lab
Shell Global Solutions International perspective. Over the years, we have studies. We need to explore the limits of
compared costs for protecting on- or even gained a greater understanding of performance of materials and designs.
near-shore oil and gas pipelines and the complex coastal processes and how We need to test new insights with field
found that oyster reef breakwaters cost engineering alters those processes — experience.
approximately $1 million per mile, while sometimes to the detriment of downcoast To gather enough quality data to
standard rock breakwaters cost $1.5 properties and activities. Natural systems facilitate high-volume analyses neces-
million to $3 million per mile (Dow et have not yet been subjected to anything sary to draw meaningful conclusions
al. 2013). The Chesapeake Bay Founda- close to the same level of study as engi- that will guide future projects, we need
tion (2007) found that installations of neered solutions. broad agreement on common metrics and
shoreline edge wetlands with sills (a.k.a. agreements about what, when, where and
But that doesn’t mean we should not
living shorelines) cost $50-100 per foot by whom data collection makes sense.
be using natural defenses now. In fact,
less than bulkheads and riprap solutions, The Living Shorelines Academy (http://
expert coastal engineers and scientists
costing approximately $500 to $1,200 per and
gathered by EDF in May 2015 con-
foot for sites in the bay. the Coasts, Oceans, Ports, and Rivers
cluded there was “sufficient confidence
The return on the investment is actu- in the ability of natural infrastructure and Institute ( are
ally much higher when other ecosystem nature-based measures to reduce impacts preparing to become national repositories
services of natural defenses are consid- of coastal storms and sea level rise to for collecting and sharing meaningful
ered. Grabowski et al. (2012) calculated coastal communities such that these ap- data on U.S. living shoreline projects.
the economic value of oyster reef ser- proaches should be routinely considered Deltares and TU Delft are part of the
vices (wave attenuation, water quality as viable options by decision-makers” EcoShape Consortium, which has already
improvement, etc., but excluding oyster (Cunniff and Schwartz 2015). developed planning guidelines for natu-
harvesting) as between $13,585 and ral defenses (
Given that we know natural defenses en_GB/guidelines.html) and are actively
$244,530 per acre per year. Restoration
can work, are cost-effective, and also designing a wiki to support collection and
of oysters and wetlands can help com-
provide other benefits, we need to decide sharing of information from projects. We
munities meet water quality standards
where we currently feel comfortable need these kinds of multi-party efforts
and avoid costly storm water collection
in deploying these solutions and guide and cooperation of project implementers,
and treatment infrastructure. Restored
their appropriate use. To do this, we must small and large, to reach the full potential
habitat may even increase property values
embark on a collaborative engineering of these sites to inform future engineer-
or at least speed property sales — this is

Page 30 Shore & Beach  Vol. 84, No. 1  Winter 2016

Table 1.
Natural defenses: Summary of risk reduction performance. Factors effecting risk reduction performance
include storm intensity, track, forward speed, surrounding local bathymetry and topography.
RISK REDUCTION PERFORMANCE___________________________
- = Low confidence, feature not likely to
Reduce Storm
Reduce Nuisance Short wave force & surge
+ = High confidence, data available
coastal floods (<2’) height (low
~ = Limited confidence refinement needed
erosion/ (high tides attenuation of medium frequency
Blank = no confidence or no data
shoreline with sea (stabilize waves extreme
Strategy ___________________________________ stabilization level rise) sediment) (2’-5’) events)
Groins + - +
Breakwaters + - + +
Seawalls/revetments/bulkheads + + + +
Surge barriers - + +
Existing natural____________________________________________________________________
Wetlands + + ~ ~
Mangroves/coastal forest + + + +
Vegetated dunes + + + +
Beach nourishment + + + +
Vegetated dune creation + + + + +
Barrier island restoration + + + + +
Small-scale edging and sills
(living shorelines) + ~ +
Restored oyster/shellfish reefs + + ~
Restored/created coral reefs + + ~
Restored maritime forests
(including mangroves) + + + + +
Restored wetlands + + + ~ ~

ing designs and more rapidly expand If federal funds for flood risk reduc- their resilience to coastal storms and sea
acceptance of coastal resilience projects tion actions are proposed to be used for level rise.
that build in natural defenses. restoring or creating natural defenses,
Start with beaches, dunes,
federal policies require quantification
Engineering guidelines are key of the risk reduction benefits. Lack- reefs, and mangroves
Engineering guidelines are a critical ing engineering guidelines for natural Do we have to wait for all this research
first step toward putting natural defenses defenses, engineers cannot confirm nor to be completed to develop engineering
on more equal analytical footing with endorse a measure’s expected risk reduc- guidelines? In September, I put this ques-
traditional engineered solutions, as it will tion performance. Therefore, the Corps, tion to a group of coastal engineers from
allow the approaches to be designed to the principal federal agency designing the Corps, the Netherlands’ Rijkswater-
work effectively in concert. It will also and financing storm damage reduction staat, and leading international engineer-
allow comparison of the benefits and projects, is, unfortunately, not likely to ing firms. They agreed that engineering
cost effectiveness of natural defenses and consider the contribution of natural in- guidelines for natural defenses could be
traditional “gray” solutions. Engineering frastructure to storm damage reduction. developed now. And with that additional
guidelines are a necessary precursor to The effect is that many communities, data and experience, guidance should be
engineers’ certification of project perfor- frustrated in their ability to advance regularly updated and refined.
mance and vitally important for public ecologically-sensitive approaches, are Engineering guidelines already ex-
confidence. Guidelines will therefore forced to turn to traditional hardened ist for beach nourishment projects and
also aid the evolution of flood risk reduc- solutions for their shorelines, and critical dunes. However, they ought to be updated
tion policies. Engineering guidelines for coastal habitats are lost. to incorporate information on planting
natural defenses will also advance the
Once risk reduction benefits can be designs and maintenance practices to
private sector – as they will reduce its
quantified, then new market-based or encourage beach and dune building. We
risk of failure, grow new practices, aid
private sector funding options can be de- cannot afford for engineering not to re-
identification of qualified contractors,
signed for communities seeking financial flect biological factors that improve the
and provide a clear means for confirming
support for measures that will enhance structure and function of these features.
adequate project execution.

Shore & Beach  Vol. 84, No. 1  Winter 2016 Page 31

The National Academy of Sciences CONCLUSION green-infrastructure.pdf
noted that oyster and coral reefs function Natural defenses work for wave Ferrario, F., M.W. Beck., C.D. Storlazzi, F. Micheli,
C.C. Chepard, and L. Airoldi 2014. “The ef-
as submerged breakwaters (NRC 2014). attenuation and can complement tradi- fectiveness of coral reefs for coastal hazard
Scientists with The Nature Conservancy tional, hardened engineered solutions. risk reduction and adaptation.” Nature Com-
have been documenting their perfor- Creation of engineering guidelines will munications, 5, 9.
mance, and The Nature Conservancy, facilitate quantification of the storm dam- Grabowski, J.H., R.D. Brumbraugh, R.F. Conrad,
age reduction services of nature defenses A.G. Keeler, J.J. Opaluch, C.H. Peterson,
the EcoShape Consortium and others
M.F. Piehler, S.P. Powers, and A.R. Smyth
are testing different designs of oyster and will help decision-makers choose the 2012. “Economic valuation of ecosystem
substrates in multiple locations in the best combination of methods that reflect services provided by oyster reefs.” BioSci-
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with the loss of their many ecosystem ing. Let’s build a commitment to com- storm-surge-reduction-by-mangroves
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