Living shorelines project at this BSA camp is a conservation success story

As the Tidewater Council was exploring ways to improve its shoreline damaged from decades of erosion, the environmental division of the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) was searching for ways to improve water conditions in the entire Chesapeake Bay region.

The partnership between the two organizations has resulted in a conservation success story for everyone involved.

It’s been almost a year since VDOT installed a living shoreline system on Lions Beach at Pipsico Scout Reservation. And it will be many, many years until all of the benefits can be fully realized.

So far, however, the results have been clear (pun intended): improved water conditions, less erosion and an educational opportunity for Scouts who visit the camp. The beach’s cliffs are no longer eroding into the James River, resulting in better conditions not just at Pipsico, but downstream as well.

“We wanted to see what we could do to preserve our cliffs because we’re kind of fond of them,” says Evan Sommerfield, the ranger at Pipsico Scout Reservation. “It’s been really neat to see.”

A small part of a large project

VDOT has been working to improve conditions in Chesapeake Bay, the largest estuary in the United States, for more than a decade. Its restoration efforts have spanned 64,000 square miles of land that extends from New York to Virginia. Years of poor environmental conditions in waters that make up the estuary have resulted in harmful algal blooms and dead zones that lack life due to reduced oxygen levels in the water.

Among other factors, pollution from manmade development that runs off the farms, neighborhoods, cities and roadways throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed has contributed to the overall poor health of the bay.

VDOT was tasked with addressing the pollution runoff from the many miles of roadway that the organization manages within the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Over the past 13 years, VDOT has been actively reducing the amount of pollution to the bay through a wide range of practices that include street sweeping, new stormwater treatment facilities, land conservation, stream restoration and living shorelines.

And that brings us to Pipsico Scout Reservation.

Living shorelines help improve the health of the estuary by reducing bank erosion and increasing marsh habitat.

As it turns out, it’s exactly what was needed at Pipsico.

What are living shorelines?

Like many shorelines, Lions Beach had become damaged over years from storms, boat wake and rising sea levels, leading to land loss and water pollution. Living shorelines are a nature-based solution that uses marsh grasses and shrubs — among other things — to hold the land in place.

These grasses and shrubs can survive when they’re covered with water at high tide and also when they’re exposed to air, wind and sun at low tide. The plants help slow down water and weaken wave energy, which reduces erosion. They also make great habitat for the fish, crabs and birds that live in the James River.

“We’ve had beaver come in and we’ve seen them playing around,” Sommerfield says. “We have blue heron that are just enjoying better fishing. We’ve seen crabs come in and all that.”

An essential part of this living shoreline is its breakwaters. The Pipsico project included the installation of five breakwaters, totaling about 750 linear feet, that consist of stones, each placed exactly where they need to be to protect the newly grown vegetation from the river’s waves.

VDOT has partnered with other state properties and lands owned by nonprofits to install similar structures throughout the Chesapeake Bay region.

The Pipsico project was made possible by an $834,100 grant from the Virginia Environmental Endowment that was matched by VDOT.

Scouts doing their part

The work was completed in part by Scouts who visited Pipsico for summer camp in 2023. They helped plant many of the plants that will prevent erosion on those shores for many years to come.

Now, when Scouts visit Lions Beach to participate in one of the camp’s aquatics offerings, they can learn how the structure was installed, and how it’s just a small part of a much larger effort to improve water quality throughout the region.

For Joe Parfitt, an environmental program manager at VDOT, the project took on extra meaning. Parfitt was a longtime Scouting volunteer himself, having guided his two sons through Cub Scouting and into Scouts BSA.

“Teaming up with the BSA to work on a shoreline stabilization project that would benefit the Scouts, the agency, the commonwealth and the environment was a special opportunity for me personally,” he says. “Working with Evan, the Scout leaders and especially the Scouts who volunteered their time during summer camp to help us plant the marsh plantings was a great pleasure.”

Photos courtesy of the Virginia Department of Transportation

About Aaron Derr 448 Articles
Aaron Derr is the senior editor of Scout Life and Scouting magazines, and also a former Cubmaster and Scouts BSA volunteer.