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Environmental Group Will Use Nature To Fight Coastal Erosion Along Highway 98

Highway 98 is a vital artery running through the heart of Franklin County. But portions of the road are only a few feet away from the sea, leaving it vulnerable to daily erosion and tidal surge from hurricanes. Parts of it have been washed out in past storms. Now, leaders are looking to a new solution: nature.

From Carrabelle to East Point, slabs of concrete and sharp gray rocks blanket the sides of Highway 98. But Franklin County Commissioner Ricky Jones says it wasn't always like that.

"There were residences and docks, and I could remember a couple [of] places now where the road is right beside the water, there were people who had their house way off the road," Jones says.

Over the years, the sea has gobbled up the coast, taking the houses and docks with it. Now, it threatens to take the road as well.

"It's been trying to be kept up, but we've had so many storms, it's been an issue," Jones says.

Even if storms don't make landfall in Franklin County, they still take their toll.

"Even if we're not directly impacted with the storm like Michael was, we're on the eastern side of it. So, the way it circulates, we're still catching the brunt of what it brings," Jones says.

Pictured here is an aerial view of Highway 98. The road's left side is flanked by a strip of grass. Separating the grass from the ocean is a mound of jagged rocks.
Jon Manson Hing
The jagged rocks shown here are what's known as rip-rap. It separates the ocean from Highway 98, helping to protect the road from daily coastal erosion.

Apalachee Regional Planning Council (ARPC) President Chris Rietow says the stretch of Highway 98 between East Point and Carrabelle was for decades getting washed out anytime there was a significant storm event. And he says, Franklin County residents can't go further in-land to build homes.

"That's not an option because they only have a very small percentage of their land that is developable because it's not part of the Apalachicola National Forest," Rietow says.

And some people don't have the money to build houses resistant to hurricanes.

"In a lot of our smaller communities in our region, they're rural. The folks that live there do not have the income to build stronger and better," Rietow says.

Up until now, hard armoring has been used to protect the coast along Highway 98. That includes sea walls and rip rap—the sharp boulders flanking the road. But Rietow says it comes with problems.

"Well, anytime you put in armoring or seawall in one area, it diverts water around it and impacts the adjacent properties causing erosion someplace else or moving sediment someplace else," Rietow says.

Pictured here is a top-down view of Highway 98. A large strip of jagged rocks separates the road from the ocean.
Jon Manson Hing
While rip-rap may help combat daily coastal erosion along Highway 98, ARPC President Chris Rietow says it can come with unintended consequences, such as diverting water to adjacent properties, causing coastal erosion someplace else.

Recently, the ARPC got $15 million to help fund the Franklin 98 Living Shoreline Project. While it won't help with significant tidal surge from big storms like Hurricane Michael, where it reached more than seven feet, it could offset minor flooding from storms and daily coastal erosion. The council is testing different materials in the water to see if oysters and other critters latch on and form a hard-bottom reef.

"So as the waves hit the reef, it slows them down and reduces the amount of actual energy that's there. So, if that wave were to hit the shoreline, it would hit it with more energy than it would with th[is] present in front of the wave," The ARPC's Josh Adams says.

He points to a test area not far from the shore. Rods crusted with barnacles stick up out of the water. They're flanked by half-submerged crates with chunks of granite and old oyster shells. Adams shows me a baby oyster growing on one of the materials. It looks like a small brown blob. As it grows, it will help create a hard-bottom reef, which will reduce wave energy, allowing for a salt marsh to grow between the reef and shore.

What looks to be a patch of tall grass sticks up out of shallow water. Far behind the grass is a destroyed dock with pelicans resting on it.
Robbie Gaffney
The ARPC's Josh Adams says an old dock reduced wave energy, helping this salt marsh to grow. Even though the dock is now destroyed, Adams says the marsh has grown enough to be sustainable.

"Instead of just having loose sediment here along the shore, plants are able to root in here, and their roots help to lock in the sediment so instead of being washed out to shore during a storm, the plants help to lock it in," Adams says.

It could also act as a nursery for baby sea critters. Adams says there's proof this has already happened in the area. He takes me to an old dock that's been destroyed. A portion of the dock still stands in the ocean, crowded by pelicans. And by the shore is a marsh.

"So just those pilings allowed for enough wave attenuation, so it reduced enough wave energy to allow for the establishment of this marsh right here along the shoreline, and you'll notice where the marsh is, you actually have more sediments that go out that are a little higher than those around it," Adams says.

Close-up view of salt marsh vegetation rooted in shallow water.
Robbie Gaffney
The ARPC's Josh Adams says salt marsh vegetation roots into the sand, helping to capture sediment so it doesn't wash out during storms.

Adams is hoping that happens to Franklin 98's project area. But tidal surge from category three, four, or five hurricanes will continue to be an issue. That's because the water rises above the reef and marshes, preventing the water from slowing down. Storms are getting stronger and bigger, and sea levels are rising. The living shoreline isn't meant to replace sea walls.

Join WFSU and partners on October 20, 2020 at 7 pm ET for a virtual screening and discussion about the future of the Apalachicola River and the Forgotten Coast. Register: wfsu.org/ageofnature