Sustainable Coastal Erosion Control: Is it Possible Presentation Recap


On Monday, March 3, 2014 at 6:30pm, the Orleans Conservation Trust (OCT) hosted the third of five presentations associated with our 2014 Winter & Spring Lecture Series at the Orleans Yacht Club. Jim O’Connell, a Coastal Geologist and Land Use Specialist for Coastal Advisory Services, entertained more than 70 residents and visitors from across the Cape with his enlightening lecture entitled, “Sustainable Coastal Erosion Control: Is it Possible?”

To set the stage, O’Connell informed the audience that he has been working professionally as a coastal geologist & coastal land-use specialist for close to 30 years. During that time he has worked for the:

  • Federal Emergency Management Agency;
  • University of Hawaii Sea Grant Program on the Island of Kauai;
  • Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s Sea Grant Program;
  • Cape Cod Cooperative Extension;
  • Cape Cod Commission;
  • Massachusetts Coastal Zone Management; and,
  • Town of Scituate as their Conservation Agent.

These work experiences helped O’Connell understand that in order for him to first determine appropriate site-specific coastal erosion control alternatives, he needed to understand and define what sustainable coastal erosion meant, while still meeting the local and State wetland regulatory requirements.

In order to define this term, Jim looked up definitions of sustainable development, sustainable fishing, and sustainable agriculture. The common theme he found in all cases was of course, sustainability, which O’Connell interpreted as meeting the needs of the present, while not adversely affecting those same needs in the future. When talking specifically about coastal erosion control, O’Connell believes that acting sustainably is controlling the coastal resource, without depleting or permanently damaging the resource for future generations.

With this definition in mind, Jim went on to explain the different types of landforms, including:

  • Coastal banks
  • Coastal dunes
  • Salt marshes

O’Connell described a coastal bank as the seaward face or side of any elevated landform, other than a coastal dune, which lies at the landward edge of a coastal beach and is subject to tidal action. Coastal dunes, while there are many types, are all formed by interaction with the flow of air or water, and salt marshes are coastal wetlands that are flooded and drained by salt water brought in by the tides.

With sustainability defined and a clear understanding of how each specific landform functions and its role in the “system”, only then can you begin to look at your erosion control options. O’Connell said finding the different erosion control measures is the easy part, determining what the most sustainable and appropriate option is for the different locations is the hard part. O’Connell explained there are two options to mitigate erosion control, you can use a “hard” option or “soft” option. Hard armoring includes a variety of techniques including rock riprap (large stones placed along the slope of a coastal bank) and gabions (rock- filled wire baskets placed along a coastal bank). Soft armoring refers to live plants, vegetative mats, coconut fiber rolls, etc. Soft armor is “alive” and can adapt to changes in its environment as well as potentially reproduce, multiply, and/or provide nutrients back into the “system.

O’Connell wrapped up his presentation by showing examples erosion control projects being implemented across the south shore of MA and reminding those in attendance that living on Cape Cod, including in Orleans, means accepting the fact that we are living in a coastal zone. This means we need to adapt in order for us to live in harmony with the dynamic forces of waves, currents, winds, and sea level rise that transport silt, sand, and cobble, constantly shaping and re-shaping coastal landforms. This includes the beaches we visit, the barrier beaches that protect our bays, and the coastal banks that protect our homes. O’Connell said the Cape is a dynamic environment and in order for us to live in harmony with it, we need to understand the processes that drive coastal landform changes.

Join us on Monday, April 7th, 2014 at 6:30pm at the Orleans Yacht Club for the next lecture entitled, “Climate Change, the Global Carbon Cycle, & the Management of Carbon on Land”given by Richard Houghton III, Acting President & Senior Scientist at the Woods Hole Research Center.