Shorelines and streamsides promise beautiful views, peaceful sounds of flowing water and breaking waves and recreation. They are also among the most productive and valuable types of wildlife habitat. Some very sensitive shorelines, such as estuaries and wetlands are best left undisturbed. Nevertheless, for the foreseeable future, human development along and near shorelines and streamsides is a reality, since only a very small percentage of these areas are protected in parks. By developing while respecting land, water and ecosystems, we can collectively reduce our impacts on these areas and perhaps even improve a degraded area.
Owning and developing shoreline or streamside property comes with a risk and a responsibility. These areas are prone to special problems such as erosion and flooding. By becoming informed and following some simple principles, you can ensure that your property retains or increases its value, while protecting the natural features that make it so beautiful. The following tips and links provide information for property owners, the general public, developers and planners.
Assess the Features of the Property
In order to identify possible risks for building as well as to avoid damaging natural features that may provide valuable erosion protection and wildlife habitat, before purchasing or developing a property, you may want to seek the advice of a geomorphologist or a geotechnical engineer (who can assess potential erosion and other physical processes). The following questions are among those you may want to consider.
What kind of shoreline or streamside is it?
Some shorelines and streamsides naturally erode, while others are quite stable. On most shorelines and streamsides, it is prudent to set structures back from the edge as much as possible. If you want a sandy beach, consider buying a property where one naturally exists; imported sand often gets washed away, and removing natural marsh vegetation can create erosion problems and destroy valuable wildlife habitat. For more information on specific features and problems for various shorelines, see the Shoreline Types
What is the water budget?
A comparison of the rainwater that falls on the land percolates into the ground, to the amount that runs off the surface into surrounding water bodies is the water budget. There are technical resources available for developers and planners; however, even individuals with a small piece of property can benefit from thinking about this problem in general terms. The concern is that adding large areas of impervious surfaces can cause excessive rainwater to flow into and damage creeks, and carry pollutants into aquatic areas. Learn more about impervious surfaces and what you can do to help reduce them on your property. By attempting to mimic the water budget of a natural area, you can help to reduce damage to shorelines and streamsides.
What kinds of plants and animals live there?
You may have some areas on your land that are important to local birds, fish, mammals and other animals. Some types of plants are very effective at preventing erosion from waves and high stream flows; others provide shelter for wildlife, including animals that help control insect pests. Invasive species, on the other hand, do not provide as much habitat and food for animals, and are not usually as effective for controlling erosion. If you need help identifying plants and animals, contact a local environmental group or nature society, or purchase a field guide.
How have previous activities affected the shoreline?
Over watering, removing vegetation and building too close to the shore can cause erosion. Seawalls on or adjacent to your property may cause the beach to become steeper and more coarse as the sand is washed away (see coastal sediment processes
and altered shorelines
). You will want to consider how to deal with the legacy left by a previous owner.
What kind of water access do you want or require?
Properly constructed trails, boardwalks and stairs allow you to safely enjoy the waterfront, and contribute minimally to habitat loss and erosion. Poorly planned structures, conversely, can cause significant damage. If you are able to share a dock or access trail with a neighbour, you can reduce costs and impact to the shoreline.
What kind of condition is the septic system in?
Replacing a septic system can be very expensive. Regular maintenance and inspection is necessary to ensure that it is not leaking sewage pollution into the nearby water. Very wet soils may not allow for effective treatment. Make sure the septic field and tank are set well back from the water's edge. For additional information, please visit the CRD's Septic Savvy
Plan around natural features
By working with the natural topography and retaining existing features, you can save a lot of expenses in landscaping and building, and add to the beauty of your land.
- The buffer zone is your friend! A wide band of natural vegetation along the shoreline or stream is one of the most valuable, least expensive ways to protect your property from erosion, maintain wildlife habitat, and filter pollutants.
- Naturally sloping shorelines with lots of vegetation are much less prone to erosion than shorelines "armoured" with seawalls and retaining walls. Natural shorelines also provide much more habitat for plants and animals. (See also erosion, coastal sediment processes and altered shorelines for more information.)
- Leave as much natural vegetation as possible in place during construction, and salvage shrubs and marsh plants for replanting elsewhere. Large trees provide shade, reduce air conditioning needs, prevent erosion and provide wildlife habitat. If you want more of a view of the water, consider selectively pruning trees rather than removing them (don't top trees, as this may kill them).
- Streamside vegetation protects the stream banks from erosion, keeps the water cool for fish and provides habitat for birds, insects and spiders (some of which provide natural pest control). Many insects are also important fish food.
- Salt marsh and wetland vegetation helps to anchor soils and sediment next to the shore, and provides habitat for birds and fish.
- If you want the feel of a beach and sand is not present on your natural shoreline, try creating a sandy landscaped area above the high water mark, while leaving shoreline vegetation in place. The sand is more likely to stay in place there, whereas next to the water imported sand will likely get washed away.
- Don't tidy up too much; dead wood gives life! Leaf litter, branches and logs in the forest provide nutrients to the soil, "nurse logs" for new seedlings, and hiding places for wildlife. Drift logs help to anchor shifting sand and shelter wildlife on the beach. Large fallen trees and limbs in streams slow the water flow and create pools for fish.
- Near and below the low tide line, eelgrass meadows provide invaluable habitat for fish and other marine creatures. Unfortunately,eelgrass can't survive shading from docks and wharves. If possible, plan these structures around existing eelgrass.
- Pave as little of your property as possible. This limits the impervious surfaces that collect pollutants and shed contaminated rainwater to the nearby waterbody. Alternatives to pavement for driveways and walkways include gravel, stepping stones, brick and permeable pavers (see impervious surfaces for more information).
Maintain a healthy shoreline. Once you've established your home or development, some simple actions can ensure it remains in good shape.
Along the shoreline
- Maintain the natural vegetation buffer and control invasive species.
- Monitor erosion (remember, it's a natural process on some shorelines), and if action must be taken, investigate alternatives to seawalls and other hard structures.
- Practice green boating techniques to limit marine pollution from boats.
- Minimize disturbance to wildlife (see other ways you can help protect animals in marine areas).
In the garden
- Use native plants and eliminate invasive species.
- Garden without pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers; conserve water; encourage beneficial birds, bats and insects (see natural gardening techniques).
- Create a "rain garden" in natural depressions in the land, to filter runoff from driveways, roofs and sidewalks.
- Dispose of pet wastes in the toilet or in the garbage; nitrates, phosphates and bacteria in feces can degrade the water quality.
In and around the house
- Direct the downspouts of rain gutters to the lawn or garden, or to rain barrels, rather than letting it flow across pavement into waterbodies.
- Use non-toxic cleaning products.
- Wash your car over the lawn to allow soap to filter through the grass rather than running straight into the stormdrain.
- Dispose of hazardous household wastes such as motor oil, paint, solvents, pesticides, batteries, etc., at an appropriate facility (see the CRD recycling guide)
- Use drop cloths when painting to collect paint chips, debris and drips.
- Maintain and regularly inspect septic systems (see the CRD septic savvy kit)
A nice trail provides the gateway to your waterfront, and can be an attractive feature in its own right. An improperly planned and poorly built trail, however, can lead to erosion and expensive maintenance. It is worth picking up a good reference book on trail building, or contacting your local hiking or mountain biking club for advice. A general principle to keep in mind is if the trail is built in harmony with the landscape, it will be more attractive and durable.
- If possible, share a beach access trail with a neighbour. This can save money as well as reduce the impact on the land and vegetation.
- The shortest route to your beach or waterfront may not be the best route for a trail. Look for natural gaps between trees, rocks and other features, and allow the trail to wind through the landscape.
- Avoid placing the trail through marshy or muddy areas whenever possible. If the trail must cross such an area, invest in a boardwalk or bridge.
- In general, trails should have a slope less than 10%, although it depends on the underlying material; on rocky ground you can get away with a steeper trail whereas trails in sandy soil should have a very shallow slope. The concern is for erosion as well as for the safety of the users.
- Water bars, small trenches reinforced with rock or wood, can help divert water off the side of the trail, to prevent it from washing away the soil. See the "More Information" section for specifics on building water bars.
- Try to build the trail so it gradually "wraps around" a slope. "Switchbacks" (trails that zigzag up a slope) invite people to take short-cuts, which compacts soil and can undo all your good planning and construction.
- Very steep slopes require some special planning, and you may want to get advice from a professional landscape architect or engineer. Trails that follow the "fall-line" on steep slopes provide channels for water, and can quickly turn into gullies, and cause serious erosion. A better option may be well-constructed stairs.
- Build a trail suited to its intended use and the needs of those who use it. For infrequent use by physically active people, a narrow and minimally constructed trail will do. A wider and smoothly graded trail may be required for elderly or physically challenged persons, and/or if heavy foot traffic is expected.
Docks are certainly valuable amenities for boaters. However, they can block the light for aquatic plants such as eelgrass (which provide important fish habitat), and cause pollution from wood treatment chemicals, paint, and fuel spills and leaks. Before building a dock, consider if you can share a dock with a neighbour, trailer your boat to a public boat launch, use a community dock or a mooring buoy. These options also save money. If you really do require a dock, you may be able to minimize its impact with some careful planning.
- Inquire about permits and approvals you need before you invest in construction.
- Research the wildlife and fish habitat in the area where you're planning to build the dock. (Local community stewardship groups should be able to help). Small changes in your plans and the materials you use could make a big difference for the local marine life.
- If possible, avoid placing a dock over eelgrass beds, as they provide highly valuable habitat for fish and other marine creatures, and are sensitive to shading. (The Webmap can show you where eelgrass and other marine life are located in the CRD harbours.)
- Choose a design with the smallest possible area that will fulfill your needs.
- Build a floating or cantilever dock that allows water to circulate below it. Structures that require filling and dredging are not usually permitted for residences, and cause much more habitat loss.
- Don't use bare polystyrene (a.k.a. "styrofoam") for dock floats; it breaks down and small bits can be swallowed by birds and fish.
- Plan the orientation of the dock (i.e. N,S,E,W) to minimize shading of aquatic plants underneath.
- If possible, consider building grating into the surface of the dock to allow light to penetrate through it.
Additional Information & Links
, Impervious Surfaces
, Invasive Species
, Habitat Loss and Degradation
for background information about these concerns.
Water Budget & Stormwater Management
Books & Articles