Until earlier this year, the land along the northern shore of Piscataway Park in northern Prince George's County, Md., was receding quickly. So much earth had washed from the shore into the Potomac River over the past decade that a trail used to transport student field trips by tractor was becoming dangerous.
Had the erosion continued, the Alice Ferguson Foundation, a group devoted to environmental action and education that operates the park, would have been forced to discontinue its popular canoe field trip program, foundation executive director Tracy Bowen said.
'It would have been too treacherous for students,' she said.
In addition to threatening the field trips, significant wildlife habitats and American Indian archaeological sites were at risk because of loss of land in Piscataway Park, which is part of the National Park Service.
But with help from stimulus funding and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a living shoreline restoration ' an advanced technique for preventing erosion while rebuilding lost habitats ' will allow the foundation to continue offering its programs in the park. The living shoreline will not only prevent further erosion, it will create wetlands and allow for wildlife habitat development, NOAA project manager Rich Takacs said.
In the 1970s, hard shoreline restorations were done near the half-mile stretch of restored shore at the park. But the hard restorations, in which rocks were piled along the shore to prevent further deterioration, actually sped erosion. The force of the water whipping around the rocks scoured out the unprotected area, Takacs said.
Maryland's online historical map database, which dates back as far as 1830, allowed the Ferguson Foundation and NOAA to determine that nearly a quarter-mile of land had been lost in Piscataway Park.
Planners research how water moves along the shore to determine which areas need the most protection. Crews then pile rocks in the water just off of the shore, leaving gaps in the rock barrier so water can flow in and animals can create their habitats. Sand is filled in between the eroded shoreline and the rock barrier, and vegetation stabilizes the sand with its roots and attracts wildlife.
'It's a softer technique,' Takacs said. 'We still want to make sure we get the structural protection. If we didn't care about habitat, the traditional approach is just to pile rock along the shoreline.'
Planning for the restoration project started in 2006 and was 'shovel-ready' by the end of 2007, Takacs said. When stimulus money became available for environmental projects in 2009, the foundation's proposal was ready to go. The $1.1 million Piscataway restoration was one of 50 projects selected from more than 800 applications.
Major construction was completed in late May in the park, which is across the Potomac River from Mount Vernon. The first phase of planting was completed over the summer, and more will take place in the spring.
The project's effect was more than environmental, they said. The foundation chose struggling local companies when selecting contractors and was able to help sustain 20 local jobs as a result of the stimulus money, Bowen said.
'The stimulus program is getting criticized a lot, but for us it really was a good investment of a national treasure that will be around for years and years to come and will benefit thousands of children,' she said.