Guarding the Coast

How local homeowners and communities are working to combat shoreline erosion

A shrimp boat heads out of harbour near Bayou la Batre’s Lightning Point. Photo by Meggan Haller, Keyhole Photo

Balancing surf and sand is a continuous, but worthy, quest when done correctly and naturally. Let bulkheads be bygone. Today’s shoreline reclamations utilize a more natural approach, and this month, MB turns its focus on two such efforts. One is a city-wide project, the other caters to residential and small business properties. Both work with nature instead of against it.

Lightning Point: Erosion Control is a City Asset

Bayou La Batre’s Lightning Point is hard to believe. Not the grassy marshlands, winding creeks and wildlife-friendly habitats. No, that part is delightfully real. What is difficult to grasp is that four years ago, the aforementioned natural splendors were not even there.

But the need for it was glaringly obvious. The shores of Mobile County’s seafood city were at risk of disappearing. “Actually, it was on the brink,” recalls Andrew Blejwas, associate director of marketing for The Nature Conservancy (TNC) Alabama. “Four years ago, the shoreline was right where we are sitting,” he says from a picnic table at Lightning Point’s new pavilion, overlooking its new shore. “At this spot, we would have been in water.” The good news is, we are not. 

Today a large marsh, teeming with wildlife, separates and buffers the Gulf of Mexico from terra firma.

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Working with the City of Bayou La Batre, the Alabama Department of Conservation and National Resources, Mobile County, and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, TNC set out to protect and preserve Alabama’s iconic coastal town.  

New tools and philosophies were emphasized; natural and native materials were implemented rather than relying heavily on manufactured barricades. The result was Lightning Point, the restoration project that doesn’t look like one.

Lightning Point at sunset. Photo by Meggan Haller, Keyhole Photo

Over 240,000 cubic yards of sediment was used to build 40 acres of coastal habitats, and approximately 2.5 miles of new tidal creeks were created. Jetties, about 700-feet long, were built at the mouth of the channel. 

“The channel had to be dredged about every two years,” says TNC’s coastal projects manager Mary Kate Brown. “The new jetties should slow down sedimentation issues and all that digging. It’s vital that we protect the navigation channel.”

More than 90,000 native plants were added to new marsh beds. Today, 50-plus bird species have been observed roosting, feeding and nesting. “We also have river otters,” smiles Brown. 

“These are the habitats that make the babies possible. Our little crabs, shrimp and fish come from it,” adds Judy Haner, TNC’s director of Alabama marine programs. She and Brown approached the city council with a proposal: Build Lightning Point — named for the high number of lightning strikes that hit Bayou La Batre — at no cost to the city.

“If we can make a habitat that supports livelihoods and at the same time protects the shore, isn’t that a win-win?” Haner asked. Bayou La Batre agreed.

“Within a year into construction [in 2019], oysters were growing on rocks,” recalls Bayou La Batre’s Mayor, Henry Barnes Sr. “This will not only help our seafood industry, but it adds beauty to our area.”

Lightning Point is only 80 percent complete. Area residents and visitors already enjoy hiking, exploring, boating and gathering together. Many are unaware of the erosion control measures designed in each marsh, the jetties, one mile breakwater and the shoreline’s 600-foot expansion. Walking paths, a handicap-accessible fishing area, picnic areas, kayak and boat access and other amenities are either currently available or will be soon. 

Haner’s group asked local folk for their wish lists for Lightning Point. “They wanted a spot for family reunions, small festivals and recreational activities,” Haner says, “but they also
needed a stable, steady access to the channel for their livelihoods, which revolve around the seafood industry.” 

The project addresses both and has been weather tested; it has already survived five hurricanes or named storms.

Kim Barnett’s grandchildren enjoy her restored shoreline. Photo by Brooke Ruff

Home is Where the Beach Is

Though a joy to call home, residential beachside properties are not exempt from troubled waters. “Lots of large shoreline restoration projects are being done with grant money, which is great,” says Lee Yokel, senior scientist of EcoSolutions, Inc. “But private waterfront property owners are making shoreline protection decisions every day. Usually, public funds are not available to them. We try to reach those people to let them know they may have preservation options besides a vertical bulkhead or lining their shore with rock.”

“A living shoreline mimics a naturally occurring shoreline,” says Tom Hutchings, owner and founder of Baldwin County-based EcoSolutions. “Our first step is to learn about the history of the property and what is currently going on. Why is it eroding? Then we try to design a project that addresses the client’s needs with minimal impact on the natural environment. We encourage clients to reestablish conditions that were there historically. That could, for example, be a marsh or sandy beach.”

Kim Barnett was a property owner who elected for a greener option. “I was having erosion issues caused by storms, boat traffic and a next-door bulkhead,” she says of her home in Josephine. “I wanted to be able to walk into the water and for it to be safe for my grandchildren to play. So I called EcoSolutions,” she adds.

“Rather than building a wooden wall or putting rocks across the entire beach area of Barnett’s property, EcoSolutions designed a beach protected by headland breakwaters,” Hutchings says. “These structures are wood or rocks that extend from the shore into the water. They help alter the waves and water velocity, so beaches are more stable.” 

 “I chose rocks rather than wood because it is more natural,” Barnett notes. “It is a beautiful asset.” Shortly after completion, Hurricane Sally tested Barnett’s property upgrade on September 16, 2020. “After the storm, every wharf east of my property was gone,” she recalls. “My beach is still there, and my wharf is still standing. Tom and his team are amazing.”

Many beach homeowners request help permitting bulkheads for their properties. “We try to offer natural alternatives,” Hutchings says. “Usually, after we explain the human and environmental benefits, they are receptive.” 

He adds that shoreline structures installed by man always have impact — somewhere. “We must ask ourselves, ‘What is the most ecologically sound alternative to protect property and have the least impact on my neighbors?’” Hutchings says.

 “The environment never sleeps,” Yokel adds. “Conditions are constantly changing. Some change by nature; others are human-induced. Soon, the Mobile Bay Ship Channel will be deeper, and larger ships will be coming into the Bay. Our growing coastal population means more recreational boat traffic. This will all have an impact on waterfront homeowners.”

As for Barnett, she has no regrets. “My beach restoration was the best investment I have made. It buffers waves and boat wakes and has held up beautifully. I played on the beach as a child with my grandparents at their home on Mobile Bay. It was important for me to protect my shoreline while also having a beach to share with my grandchildren.”

With natural restoration and preservation, Barnett’s grandchildren — and our own — may enjoy a legacy of Mobile and Baldwin shores, in harmony with nature and people.

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