Eckerd may boast in advertising materials about its beautiful South Beach and waterfront campus, but under that facade is an ugly reality: the concrete sea wall. While first-years learn in Biological Oceanography and other classes just how ineffective sea walls are, they only need to walk just outside their classrooms to find one.
A team of Eckerd administrators, faculty and students hope to fix this issue with an innovative, environmentally-friendly alternative: a living shoreline.
“They call it living shoreline because it’s an estuary habitat, not only for oysters but fish and other species that can thrive along a native coastline,” Director of Sustainability Projects Evan Bollier said. “Living shorelines do better than concrete seawall [since] concrete walls just [have waves] banging up against it and then going up and over, whereas a living, mangroves and grasses and trees can help protect the shoreline and campus a little bit better.”
Instead of a concrete barrier at the edge of campus, they hope to plant native marsh grasses, build a layered sea wall and buffer it with oyster bags and domes. Bollier joined Grant Specialist for Strategic Initiatives Alma DeRojas, Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Jesse Sherry, senior environmental studies major Angelina Kossoff and Environmental Science Associate’s Southeast Biological Services and Restoration Director Thomas Ries to make up the core team for this project.
While Bollier and his team were exploring their options, they came across Ries, who is well-known in the field and by a few Eckerd faculty, and has done a lot of living shoreline projects before, especially in the Tampa Bay area. Ries told them about how Boca Ciega Bay and Frenchman’s Creek, the main waterways surrounding campus, are big areas of importance for rebuilding oyster beds.
Oysters are important organisms, especially in estuaries, since they filter water to help clean it and act as barriers against storm surge. These qualities make them ideal organisms for part of the living shoreline, a better alternative to a concrete wall.
“A living shoreline creates a natural gradient that allows animals and the ecosystem to thrive because they’re able to go between these types of communities, the upland, the little bit of wetland we have and the ocean, and it stops there from being that sort of habitat fragmentation that a wall could potentially cause,” Kossoff said.
Sherry, who teaches an environmental studies course called Green Design, summarized the goals of the living shoreline project:
Fix the crumbling sea wall to protect campus
Create a more environmentally-friendly shoreline
Teach the community more about these environmental issues and solutions, allowing for a demonstrational benefit
“I have been wanting us to do more with campus to address climate change and sea level rise, to do more with our physical infrastructure to demonstrate our environmental values,” Sherry said. “And so I feel like this does all of those things, and so I’m actually really excited about this project.”
The team began to look into the Tampa Bay Environmental Restoration Fund (TBERF), a grant from the partnership of the Tampa Bay Estuary Program and Restore America’s Estuaries. This grant funds projects that restore and protect Tampa Bay and its watershed.
“We saw there’s a lot of grant money out there, and that is one of the low hanging fruits that we as a tuition-driven college look towards, especially since there’s a limited number of grants specifically for private institutions which we qualify as,” Bollier said. “This one doesn’t have a designation, so we fit the parameters, and there’s a substantial amount of money in it.”
Bollier described that Eckerd would fund 50% and TBERF would fund the other 50% for this project, totaling $150,000. They are currently focusing on two areas: the sea wall between Omega and Gamma Point, and the sea wall around South Beach. They are starting with Omega and Gamma Point, since the South Beach area will need more community input, since it impacts a traditional part of Eckerd. So, this grant would only fund the Omega project, and they would reapply once they have solidified a plan with the South Beach area.
“This is just a proposal and we basically have a year to figure out exactly what it’s gonna look like,” Bollier said.
DeRojas submitted the proposal for the grant on March 19. They hope to hear back in late May, then receive funding in October if selected to move into the final design phase. They will ask for feedback and apply for permits in the spring, and once all permits are in place they hope to start construction in October 2022.
“After being a grant writer for 17 years, this is my first proposal involving a living shoreline, so it has been a learning experience for me,” DeRojas said.
She described how this project fits perfectly with President Damián J. Fernández’s Strategic Plan’s pillar of “A Sustainable Future: Pursuing Resilience”.
“This project helps to make the campus waterfront more resilient,” DeRojas said. “It has regional significance, bringing attention to the multiple living shorelines around the area.”
Kossoff, as the intern for the office of sustainability, has been sitting in on meetings as a student voice in the conversations. For now, she is learning a lot about the project and living shorelines in general, and she is excited to discuss all of it with the community as a whole.
“The next steps are, of course, to engage the Eckerd community, Eckerd students, let them know what’s going on and how they can have their input heard,” Kossoff said.
For those who may be wondering if their incredible views of the Gulf will be impacted, don’t you worry. Bollier said that they will be planting mangroves, but they will also apply for permits to be able to cut them. This will help maximize the protection while minimizing the loss of the Eckerd aesthetic.
Kossoff said, “It enhances our already beautiful campus, so it not only makes it more appealing to look at but it also increases the overall sustainability of the shoreline at a school that values that so much. I definitely think that it’s an important part of our community.”
Eckerd hopes to involve not only student and faculty input about the projects, but also the local community. They will soon ask for student input on designs, and they can be involved in plantings once construction begins. The Tampa Bay Watch is also partnering for this project, and they want to reach out to other local environmental organizations for volunteers once the planting and construction begins.
This is not a new problem, and the entire Tampa Bay community shares this burden of finding the best way of creating a barrier between the land and the sea. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commision (FWC) has been working to create a suitability model for the area, with an interactive map on their website to show viewers areas that need the most work.
“There are places where you know boats are going by all the time and generating pretty substantial wakes. And those are really tricky areas, there are ways to do them naturalized but they don’t look like a vegetated shoreline, so those are the places where sea walls kind of make sense, but the rest of it, it was just unnecessary,” Sherry said.
Eckerd hopes to aid this plight in the community by taking steps that the campus desperately needs, creating a new shoreline and engaging as many people as possible in the project.