In what may offer lasting promise for wetland restoration projects across the Gulf Coast, an assessment by the America's WETLAND Foundation (AWF) at the two-year mark of a project to secure the shoreline embankment along the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway (GIWW) near LaRose, Louisiana, provides a snapshot into future opportunities for private sector restoration of wetlands.
The project was a demonstration by AWF of new technologies and approaches to establishing or fortifying earthen berms that prevent saltwater intrusion into the waterway. Dubbed the GIWW Shoreline Restoration Project, recycled plastic matrix planted with native grasses was extended one mile along banks of the canal that had been compromised by storm surge, rising tides and wave attenuation from commercial vessels, causing a threat to contiguous fresh water marshes.
The challenges in strengthening the shoreline are replicated in numerous sections of the GIWW, which is second only to the Mississippi River in tonnage, moving commerce East and West and a key to economic and national security.
"We often call the GIWW the line of demarcation for wetland erosion along the coast and we chose a demonstration project designed for time efficiencies, innovation and cost effectiveness to address the urgent problem at hand," noted AWF managing director, Val Marmillion.
The Foundation worked cooperatively with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Ducks Unlimited, Louisiana's Coastal Protection & Restoration Authority, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, private landowners, local NGOs, and industry to select and prepare the site for the project.
Ethan Miller, Owner of Delta Farms and the landowner for the project said, "I have to admit, I was skeptical at first. Over the years we spent hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to stabilize that berm. But looking at the results today, I am impressed. Two years later, the berm is holding and the ecosystem is flourishing."
The project was completed by piggybacking on an existing permit and replacing costly rock embankments with an innovative and eco-friendly approach: a combination of natural and recycled products. Cost and time efficiencies allowed an investment of one-million dollars with no cost overruns to complete the project in less than six months followed by monitoring for two years. "In examining the site, the proof of concept is in the lush marsh grasses," Sidney Coffee, AWF senior advisor, said. "With soaring costs for restoring the coast, it is imperative we find ways for private land owners and industry to participate in wetland recovery. Our evaluation suggests relying on nature's staying power to succeed is one answer to the problem."
Both traditional and innovative technology were utilized in the form of low cost bucket dredging and a vegetated, recycled plastic matrix material called Vegetated EcoShield™, representing innovation in emerging "Green Infrastructure." Creating a "living shoreline" that protects and fortifies the embankment by promoting vegetative growth and building a habitat for waterfowl, wildlife and aquatic life.
Ted Martin, Founder of Martin Ecosystems, and supplier of Vegetated EcoShield, the product used to stabilized the berm, said, "We are very pleased that AWF chose our living shoreline product for this project. As the original plants continue to grow and multiply, their roots will secure the berm for years to come."
Solutions for protecting existing shorelines and stabilizing banks are offered by a protective medium for vegetation to establish, grow and spread. The project also resulted in reducing wave energies and shoring up the embankments of the GIWW where banks are compromised and saltwater intrusion threatens freshwater marshes.
Durability and sustainability in the form of resistance to wind and wave energy was also a project outcome. The durable non-woven recycled Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic matrix is sourced from recycled water and soda bottles. No phenol-formaldehyde resins are used in the binding process and the matrix is non-toxic to fish and aquatic life. The matrix is assembled using three or four base matrix layers positioned in a stepped format perpendicular to the shoreline. Engineered to be hardy, native grass stocks complete the process when planted and nurtured.
"Is it possible to change the restoration paradigm and complete a project with nature's products and cut the cost? Can such a solution hold up to the harsh wetland conditions and the added assault of an eroding coast? Can we beat the clock?" Marmillion asked. "These are the answers we sought and now we are preparing evidence that reduces the risk for the private sector to wade further into restoration."
Elliott Bouillion, President and CEO of RES whose nursery provided a hardier strain of plant stock for the project noted, "The solutions we provide today require us to constantly innovate and apply the latest technologies to meet the challenges of a disappearing coastline and critical ecosystem." In addition to product suppliers, RES and Martin Ecosystems, funding for the demonstration came from AWF, Ducks Unlimited, Community Coffee, CITGO, Shell, ConocoPhillips, Chevron and the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation (NFWF).