Imrpoving Water Quality: Living Shorelines

Since the early days of statehood humans in Florida have been altering shorelines to suffice their economic or domestic concerns. Like so many who came after them, the idea that waste could be diluted by discharging into waterways was common thought. The removal of vegetated buffers along shorelines significant increased point and nonpoint discharge in these systems. Towards the end of the 19th century citizens all over the country began to see this idea was causing environmental problems. With the coming of the 20th century and Theodore Roosevelt, conservation became part of public policy within many communities. With 2,276 miles of tidal shoreline and 11,000 miles of rivers, streams, and other discharging waterways, Florida has had its problems. During this century Florida has seen a significant increase in both commercial and recreational use of our waterways. Many of these projects included landscape changes and behavioral practices that increased storm water discharge as well as direct inputs of a variety of waste products. In recent years with the Florida Forever program, the Northwest Florida Water Management District has been able to purchase and restore 212,000 miles of rivers and other waterways in the panhandle. However the large area of private owned waterfronts will require support and participation by citizens in this restoration effort.

Escambia River is one of several rivers in the panhandle that has had seen water quality problems over the years. Photo: Molly O'Connor
Escambia River is one of several rivers in the panhandle that has had seen water quality problems over the years. Photo: Molly O’Connor

The process of restoring a natural shoreline is often referred to as a Living Shoreline and there are several reason for the private waterfront owner to consider one. One is to improve water quality. A natural vegetated shoreline reduces the amount of runoff reaching a waterway as well as absorbing some of the nutrients within it (you can read more about this problem with the article entitled “Improving Water Quality; bringing back the bayous” under the Marine Science section of this website). Another reason Living Shorelines are beneficial is reducing erosion. Many of these shoreline plant communities can withstand high wave energy generated from storms and high energy boat wake. The removal of these communities tends to increase shoreline erosion. A third reason is habitat for wildlife. 90% of all the commercial valuable seafood species in the northern Gulf of Mexico spend part or all of their lives in coastal marshes and seagrass meadows. In addition to these marine resources birds and other beneficial forms of wildlife use these habitats and, if planned well, can actually be quite beautiful for the homeowner.


Research shows that for a living shoreline to be beneficial a minimum of a 50 foot vegetated buffer is needed; the more acreage the better. There are couple of ways to establish this buffer. One is to allow native plants to reestablish on their own. Another is to restore the shoreline with purchased plants. If the homeowner is interested in a restoration project there should be planning prior to the project. For some homeowners this will begin with removing structure currently in place, such as a seawall or invasive plants. Second, you should consider which plants you will use. Begin this by observing what natural plants are already growing in your area. When selecting plants the homeowner should be aware of the four zones and which plants do well in each. Zone 1 is from the mean low tide mark to the water and is typically always submerged. The home owner should observe similar submerged sections on other parts of the water body. Some locations this zone could have submerged grasses or could be completely bare of vegetation. Factors that determine this would include the fetch of the waterbody, slope of the bottom, and the type of sediment. Zone 2 is the area between mean high and mean low tide. This zone will have water during high tide and marsh grasses typically exist here. Zone 3 would be between mean high tide and storm high tide line. Storms do occur and water will rise but even during dry periods the sol here may be very wet. Many homeowners know this point due to the wrack line in their yard. Zone 4 would be upland of the storm high tide line. For ideas of the type of plants that do well in these zones you can contact the Northwest Florida Water Management District or your county extension office.


Salt marshes and other tidal wetlands support a high diversity and abundance of wildlife, many of which are commercially valuable.  Photo: Molly O'Connor
Salt marshes and other tidal wetlands support a high diversity and abundance of wildlife, many of which are commercially valuable. Photo: Molly O’Connor


An important factor to remember when planning a restoration project is that the homeowner owns only to the mean high tide line. Above this there may be regulations associated with the city or a homeowners association. Below this line will require some form of permit. The type of permit will be based on the type of restoration you are seeking. Agencies within Escambia and Santa Rosa counties are currently working on a road map to make this process easier for the homeowner. Until this is complete you can contact the Florida Department of Environmental Protection for assistance. Another issue may be high wave energy created from boat wake or other atypical means. In this case a breakwater, or oyster reef, may be needed to assure the plants are not washed away. These bring their own forms of permitting and will be part of this new road map when completed.


If you are interested in a Living Shoreline and need more information you may contact:




Florida Department of Environmental Protection:



UF/IFAS Sea Grant Extension – Escambia County

Rick O’Connor



UF/IFAS Sea Grant Extension – Santa Rosa County

Chris Verlinde



Posted: September 30, 2013

Category: Coasts & Marine, Conservation, Natural Resources, Water, Wildlife
Tags: Erosion Control, Living Shorelines, Marshes, Sustainable Coastlines, Water Quality, Wildlife Conservation

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