Saving the coast, one shore at a time

Amid the sweltering summer heat of late June in Mobile, Alabama, I joined members of the Mobile Bay National Estuary Program on a trip to Mon Louis Island to witness the fruits borne from the...

When I joined members of the Mobile Bay National Estuary Program on a trip to Mon Louis Island to examine the oyster reef construction just off the coast, I caught a glimpse of a monumental process to save the dwindling shorefront.

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Amid the sweltering summer heat of late June in Mobile, Alabama, I joined members of the Mobile Bay National Estuary Program on a trip to Mon Louis Island to witness the fruits borne from the small crew’s efforts on their oyster reef construction just off the coast. However, to my fortune, I caught a glimpse of a monumental process displaying the collaboration of a small community, showing the nation all is not bleak on the dwindling shorefront.

Prior to November 2013, this island’s northwestern shore went largely ignored by many, slowly eroding. Decades passed, a few feet would turn into a few hundred feet into a few acres.

Boats, storms, waves, and winds have all played their role in swallowing a great chunk of the island’s northwestern shore.

It was in 2013 that this process of erosion could go on no longer. One more storm and the shoreline of Fowl River would be exposed to the same harsh conditions accelerating the deterioration of the shorelines currently undergoing stabilization. However, without the collaborative efforts of the small company pushed forth by the Mobile Bay National Estuary Program and others, Mon Louis Island would not resemble times of old — an unfathomable reality.

Standing on the four and a half new acres of restored marsh and island shoreline, it could be hard to believe that the very ground beneath your feet was the product of a project that spans back only to early July. It could be even harder to believe that six months from now when the same marshland is filled with vegetation bursting forth, painting the brown canvas a lush green. For those who would, do not feel ashamed, for I, too, remain dumbfounded at the progress of the project even though I stood in the very waters being filled with dredged material that now serves as that restored marshland, taking photographs with Tom Herder, the Mobile Bay National Estuary Program Watershed Protection Manager and Mon Louis Island Shoreline Stabilization/Restoration Project Manager.

Our trip to the site of the project occurred a month after our trip to the oyster reefs along the island during the warmer, more humid late July. Broken oyster shells lined the then-shoreline, prodding the soles of my feet from the hidden shallows of the water murky with dredged materials. The pungent aroma of sand, silt, and mud dug up from eight feet below the surface of Gulf Coast water filled the air like a thin film.

Dredgers sat on floating barges taking massive clumps of dredged material and relocating it to the then-shoreline. These massive machines sat off to the right of my shoulder, speeding through the thick waters and heavy earth reclaiming what had been lost to decades of erosion.

The pictures I took during that afternoon, unfortunately, did not capture the weight in the presence of those machines or the earth they moved. And this weight did not lie only physically within the moment, but in both the years before, when habitats and homes to many organisms, big and small, were slipping away into the ocean. And the years to come, when those same habitats and homes are being rebuilt and re-stabilized, giving birth once again to all kinds of critters populating the land in this life and filling my stomach in the next.

Of course, this progress could not have occurred without the efforts of three years ago.

In November 2013, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation Board, identified the restoration and stabilization of the northwestern tip of Mon Louis Island as an emergency project. In a July 2016 Fox 10 News interview, Herder revealed that this project is the first Alabama Coastal Restoration project to be funded by “BP money.” That is, money derived from criminal penalties related to the Deepwater Horizon spill that must be “tied” to damaged habitats or living resources, according to a Facebook post by Herder.

Though $1.2 million was initially granted through the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation Environmental Benefit Fund, and an additional $800,000 Alabama Deepwater Horizon Incident Grant was identified and secured by Alabama Senator Bill Hightower in early 2015.

Between those two timestamps – November 2013 to early 2015 – Herder and the Estuary Program began their collaboration efforts with marine scientist supervisor and living shoreline expert C. Scott Hardaway, as well as the experts at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Thompson Engineering, to analyze exactly how critical the situation was on the northwestern tip of Mon Louis Island.

This small group was tasked with overcoming multiple challenges, according to Herder, such as where to obtain — and how to transport — dredging materials, how to construct the rock “pile on” and breakwater, and how to conduct this process as environmentally friendly as possible. What resulted from their efforts over the course of the year was a four-phase plan for the project, Herder said: 1. Construct a 1,540-foot “dog-ugly” breakwater of riprap, or rubble used to form the foundation for a breakwater, to stabilize the northwestern tip; 2. Fill in the marsh; 3. Dredge the Army Corps of Engineers-designated Fowl River Open Water Disposal Area, the Fowl River Navigation Channel, through hydraulic pumping (a method that eliminates environmental impact as channel sediments will naturally replace all borrowed material); 4. Plant the marsh with native species.

As of late October, phases one through three have been completed. The continuous breakwater has been constructed, the marsh has been filled, and the dredge materials have been placed and settled.

Moving forward, the members of the project expect the riprap to serve its purpose disrupting tidal flows, boat waves, wind energy, and storm damages, while they now wait until May at the latest to begin planting native species to restore the missing greenery of the marsh. Of course, the breakwater is not impermeable and it is documented that this is an understood fact. But now, habitats can be revitalized, Fowl River once again has a strong line of defense, and the community along the Mobile Bay can rest easy knowing that decades of erosion have been reversed and the northwestern shoreline of Mon Louis Island has been stabilized. That’s all thanks to the efforts of this persistent group — and the necessary funding.

And work will not stop at the tip of Mon Louis Island, just as it did not begin at the tip of Mon Louis Island. It is the success of efforts such as these that, again, show all is not bleak on our shorefronts. Members of the marine science community at large will continue to save our coast —not just the gulf coast, but all our coasts — one shore at a time.

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