Coastal wetlands along North Carolina provide more than 3000 square miles of aesthetically pleasing vegetation. They provide food and habitat for several species of animals, and are critical as nurseries for a variety of marine species. These wetlands help filter pollutants from storm water runoff, and protect or reduce inland damage from constant wave action, storm surges and tides.
Coastal wetlands face natural and man-made threats. Tidal action, waves, boat wakes and inclement weather all take their toll on them. The tidal marshes respond to these stressors by migrating. The waterfront side erodes and the marsh builds up on the opposite, landward side. To add additional problems, people who build close to the marshes are also affected by erosion. However, instead of moving back, they respond by building wooden or concrete walls or place piles of rock to protect their property. Locked in place in front of the wall or rocks, the marsh can’t retreat and will eventually disappear. According to the North Carolina Coastal Federation, as many as 20 miles of the state’s estuarine shoreline are walled or rocked each year.
Coastal Federation officials maintain that the best way to deal with erosion is to plan for it, and to build as far as possible from the water’s edge and to retreat when the time comes. When that’s not possible, it recommends using stabilization methods that maintain the natural integrity of the marsh with the least amount of damage. Living shorelines are one method of doing that.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Wilmington District Regulatory Branch is doing its part to keep coastal wetlands from disappearing permanently.
“Living shoreline projects generally involve the discharge of fill material such as rock material into coastal wetlands and usually require a permit under Section 10 of the River and Harbors Act and Section 404 of the Clean Water Act,” said Regulatory Project Manager Ronnie Smith. “Regulatory project managers conduct site visits and assessments if necessary and on a case-by-case basis. Generally, we rely on information provided by the North Carolina Division of Coastal Management.”
Smith said the Wilmington District authorizes these types of projects with Nationwide Permit (NWP) 54 and Programmatic General Permit 291. The NWPs were coordinated with federal and state agencies during the NWP renewal process, so the Corps generally does not coordinate with agencies prior to authorizing the NWP.
“If we are processing a permit under the PGP 291 process, we coordinate with and request comments from the U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and any other federal agencies that would have interest in the project area,” Smith explained. “We are in the process of developing a Regional General Permit (RGP) to authorize the construction of marsh sill structures such as oyster reefs or rock formations. The use of this RGP will usually not require notification to the Corps prior to the construction of a marsh sill. During the development and approval process of RGP, we coordinated with, consulted with and/or met with representatives of the various agencies.”