Living Shoreline Design Guidelines for Shore Protection in Virginia’s Estuarine Environments

C. Scott Hardaway Jr., Virginia Institute of Marine Science
Donna A. Milligan, Virginia Institute of Marine Science
Karen Duhring, Virginia Institute of Marine Science


The Chesapeake Bay has about 6.5 million people living in its coastal counties and much of the shoreline is privately-owned. For communities along the shore, the continual shore retreat may be a problem. When land along the shore show signs of erosion, property owners tend to address it.

In the past, shore stabilization strategies generally were stone revetments or wood bulkheads. Though these strategies are effective at shore stabilization, they can create a disconnect between the upland and the water and typically provide few natural habitats along the shoreline. In fact, over the last 11 years, almost 1,500 new bulkheads or revetments were permitted in Virginia (VMRC, 2021). Estimates suggest that about 18% of the shorelines are hardened with bulkheads and revetments in Maryland and Virginia, which is about 2,000 miles of shoreline (Horan et al., 2014). In the past 30 years, a more natural approach to shore stabilization, termed “living shorelines,” has used marshes, beaches, and dunes effectively to protect the shoreline along Virginia’s creeks, rivers, and bays. Numerous benefits result from this approach to shoreline management including creating critical habitat for marine plants and animals, improved water quality, and reduced sedimentation. In addition, most waterfront property owners enjoy a continuous connection to the water that allows for enhanced recreational opportunities.

Today, living shorelines are recognized as not only a viable option for shore protection, but they are actually a preferred method. Studies of these types of systems have shown that well designed and constructed projects provide habitat and create a natural resilience to communities. To increase the installation of these systems, educating the designers, consultants and contractors who work in the shorezone is one way to achieve this goal. They are often the person who recommends a shore protection system to property owners, and therefore are the key to involving homeowner in the living shoreline design process. As a result, funding was provided to develop living shoreline design guidance for shore protection and the first contractor’s training course was held in 2010. In an effort to grow the number of contractors, local staff, and non-profit organizations who are familiar with correct living shoreline project design, the guidance and course was again offered in 2017. This latest update offered courses online with both asynchronous and synchronous content due to Covid restrictions. The course material and class recording are available online ( es/class_info).

These guidelines are meant to address the need to educate consultants, contractors, and other professionals in the use of living shoreline strategies. It provides the necessary information to determine where they are appropriate and what is involved in their design and construction. The guidelines focus on the use of created marsh fringes but also touch on the use of oysters and beaches for shore protection. The guidelines were created for the Virginia portion of the Chesapeake Bay estuarine system (Figure 1-1) but may be applicable to other similar estuarine environments. These references and tools are for guidance only and should not replace professional judgments made at specific sites by qualified individuals.