North Carolina’s CAMA: Exacerbating erosion along its estuarine shoreline

Betsy Baldwin is a student in the Masters in Coastal and Ocean Policy program and graduates this spring. She graduated from the University of Alabama in 2013 with a B.S. in Marine Science and Biology. Before starting her graduate career, she worked for SeaWorld Orlando, where she gained her interest in marine policy. 

As coastal communities experience population growth, development has shifted away from oceanfront properties to estuarine properties. North Carolina has over 12,000 miles of estuarine shoreline or sheltered coast. Sheltered estuaries are becoming a more popular building location since they offer water accessibility and provide protection from coastal storms. These estuarine areas are the most biologically productive and ecologically valuable habitats in the coastal region, providing many ecosystem services.

A bulkhead. Photo credit: North Carolina Coastal Federation 
Estuarine shorelines experience erosion by both short-term processes as well as long-term processes, such as sea level rise. Most North Carolina estuarine shorelines are experiencing significant erosion with some areas more rapidly than others.

Bulkheads are the most commonly used shoreline stabilization strategy to protect from erosion. NC Division of Coastal Management permit data show that 79% of the permitted shoreline stabilization activity since 1980 covered bulkhead installation.
However, bulkheads increase erosion due to wave reflection and prevent natural migration of wetland vegetation inland. Alternatives to bulkheads are available that provide similar levels of erosion protection while minimizing the impacts to coastal marshes.

One such alternative that is growing in popularity with scientists are living shorelines. Living shoreline use natural elements to protect the shoreline from erosion like oyster shells, native marsh grasses, wood, limestone, rip rap, or constructed oyster breakwaters. Unlike bulkheads, living shorelines act as a natural buffer, absorbing wave energy, minimizing shoreline erosion, and protecting marshes. Additionally, living shorelines allow for marshes to migrate inland as sea level rises.

A living shoreline project on Stump Sound in Onslow, County. Photo: North Carolina Coastal Federation

Profile of a type of living shoreline design 

However, in North Carolina bulkhead permitting is easy and straightforward while alternative shoreline permitting is difficult and time consuming. The differences between the two lead property owners and contractors to favor bulkheads over alternative techniques.

In North Carolina, existing legislation and regulations present difficulties that discourage alternative shoreline restoration efforts. The Coastal Area Management Act (CAMA) prohibits permanent erosion control structures on ocean shorelines, but estuarine shorelines are exempt. General permit schemes often lean toward traditional shoreline stabilization measures, like bulkheads, while alternative techniques may require the more demanding major permit process. A major permit requires more time and more money, making it less appealing to property owners and contractors.

In order for the North Carolina Division of Coastal Management (DCM) to encourage natural erosion protection, it must reevaluate the permitting process currently in place for estuarine shoreline stabilization. Creating a more streamlined permit for alternative techniques, like living shorelines, will make them more appealing to property owners and contractors. This appeal will boost living shoreline installation throughout the NC. By doing this, estuarine shorelines will become more resilient to erosion and sea level rise continuing to protect its ecologically valuable habitats and provide shelter from coastal storms.


  1. In terms of shoreline protection along estuarine areas, living shorelines are a new concept relative to bulk heading and other hard stabilization methods. While scientists trump living shorelines as the best alternative to erosion and flood protection, landowners are slow to accept this method. I believe that there is likely a lag time between the scientific knowledge being put into policy, in terms of permitting, as well as a lag time between landowners recognizing the benefits from living shorelines. I would be interested to see if, in the future, properties with living shorelines have a higher value than those with bulkheads. If there was a way to prove that living shorelines are a better alternative than bulk heading to insurance companies and real estate organizations, private property owners would be even more encouraged to develop living shorelines on their properties.

  2. I am in complete agreement that the current regulatory process for obtaining a living shoreline permit from the Division of Coastal Management is discouraging to homeowners. Property owners typically choose the path of least resistance when it comes to protecting their property, putting their assets first, and the environment second. This definitely accounts for the high quantity of general permits for bulkheads in North Carolina. Living shorelines is not a completely new science, it has been around since the 1970's. Creation of living shorelines has been an evolving science which may account for why it has taken so long to be incorporated in to regulation. The Army Corps is developing a Nation Wide Permit which should now expedite the permitting process and allow for the Division of Coastal Management to develop a General Permit based on the NWP guidelines. Despite the regulatory hurdles, in my experience the real obstacle is the local marine contractor. Property owners are often completely inexperienced with permitting and the coastal environment and will rely on the recommendations of the marine contractor for protecting their property. A marine contractor will recommend the easiest,fastest, and most expensive means of fortifying the shoreline, and this is always "bulkheads". The property owner then gives the marine contractor the legal authority to act on their behalf and speak with a Coastal Management field representative on site. The State is prohibited to require that a certain structure is used over another for shoreline protection, suggestions and recommendation are allowed. So without any contact with the property owners to voice these recommendations, the States hands are tied. Marine Contractors present a significant barrier in choosing a living shoreline solution.

  3. I don’t know much about this topic, but I think an effective approach could be to show property owners that they will save money by investing in living shorelines vice bulkheads. I think a big problem for property owners is that they assume a bulkhead is better for their property than a living shoreline. Outreach and education could help this problem, however, I think some people will still want to install bulkheads because their neighbors have them installed. This is especially true for people whose property is damaged because their neighbor had a bulkhead installed. They probably assume that the only way to stop the damage is to also have a bulkhead. It seems even one person’s bulkhead would pose problems to surrounding properties because it disrupts the natural flow of water and causes erosion. Another approach to this problem could be to have an entire neighborhood invest in a living shoreline. DCM might need to create some incentive for neighborhoods to eliminate all bulkheads and replace them with living shorelines for this approach to be feasible.

  4. After learning about living shorelines, it shocks me that bulkheads are still used as often as they are. Especially when they fail as often as they do and require replacement. I think education and outreach, since this is a relatively new approach to erosion mitigation, would be a beneficial place to start. Maybe this is already done, but partnerships between the Coastal Federation (or other such organizations) and homeowners societies along the estuarine shoreline could be beneficial. This could provide information and means of construction for eco-minded individuals which could later catch on among neighbors. Living shorelines look more attractive than bulkheads so there is a chance that targeting those that are environmentally-conscious will cause neighbors to invest in the same construction. This might even translate into policy down the road to make for cheaper and more streamlined permitting.

  5. The USACE insight above regarding the matching national permit in progress and the marine contractor handicap is definitely an interesting dimension to add to this conflict. I agree that it should not be more challenging and expensive to obtain the environmentally favorable (and more cost-effective) alternative for the home owner, and that the barrier to that is clearly the CAMA permit requirements. Since I don't know much about it, I would be interested to hear how workshops and other types of training could benefit marine contractors, perhaps using the drawn of another "feather for their cap" and keeping up with the next generation as motivation to participate.

  6. After learning about living shorelines, it is surprising that they are not being utilized as much as they should be. If homeowners want to reduce erosion, why not implement living shorelines. I think that the CAMA permit requirements should lean more towards constructing living shorelines. Outreach and education are important factor here I think because maybe not a lot of homeowners know about living shorelines and their effectiveness. Maybe doing workshops or presentations in communities about how environmentally friendly they are, then maybe one home will construct a living shoreline which could encourage their neighbors to do the same.

  7. After working with the NC Coastal Federation and seeing living shoreline work firsthand, to me it seems like a win-win. Many homeowners are concerned about the aesthetics associated with maintaining the shoreline on their property. Personally, I find living shorelines to be more visually appealing than hardened structures. Like many environmental issues, outreach and education seems to be the key to informing the public and turning them over to environmentally friendly solutions like living shorelines. Hopefully turning the social tide would translate into an easier and cheaper permit process.

  8. I think this is an important topic for growing coastal communities as more people move to the coast. I also think it demonstrates an area of green technology that needs to be explored more. I find it funny that home owners wouldn't put in living shorelines considering people purchasing homes on the water have enough resources to do so. I think in the real estate world this will become a more popular option as more people tend to be environmentally friendly.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

The Dirty Myrtle: More than meets the eye

Teamwork makes the Dream Work: collaborative management of the nation's estuaries

GenX, Environmental Justice, and North Carolina's Legacy of Pollution