Finding Nature-Based Solutions to Sea Level Rise

Cities and towns near the Chesapeake Bay are facing a major threat from sea level rise. In fact, coastal Virginia has seen the highest rate of relative sea level rise on the whole Atlantic coast, more than 14 inches since 1930. The Hampton Roads region is particularly at risk because, in addition to rising seas, the land is also sinking. In coastal Virginia recurrent floods already inundate city streets and homes, while frequent storms batter infrastructure.


Click and drag the green slider bar to see the living shoreline transformation at Colley Bay, along the Layfayette River in Norfolk, Va. Photos by Kevin DuBois

The good news is that there are ways to adapt to recurrent flooding, as well as address rising waters, using nature-based solutions. Learn about successful Virginia projects that use these practices.

Large scale shoreline protection techniques like living shorelines, living breakwaters, and oyster reefs, all stabilize the waterfront against the force of waves and storms.

Smaller scale techniques, like rain gardens, tree boxes, vegetated swales, permeable pavers, rain barrels, and downspout disconnections, hold and filter rainwater into the ground rather than letting it wash off hard streets and buildings and into creeks and rivers. This relieves pressure on overwhelmed city systems that struggle to address this regular deluge of polluted runoff.

Natural Approaches Improve Water Quality

These approaches based on natural systems have so many benefits. In addition helping us adapt to sea level rise, many of these techniques also lead to cleaner water in rivers, creeks, and the Chesapeake Bay.

Living shorelines and living breakwaters reduce the impact of storm waves and provide critical habitat, in turn creating homes for wildlife and improving fisheries. Small scale infiltration projects absorb flood waters, remove water pollution, and increase the ability to hold polluted runoff from rainfall. Ultimately, these projects also create beautiful green spaces for people to enjoy, making communities more livable and economically attractive.

CBF Highlights Opportunities for Nature-Based Solutions

CBF is highlighting natural solutions for adapting to sea level rise in Virginia that can both protect cities and suburbs and improve local water quality. Under a grant from the Blue Moon Fund, CBF Sea Level Rise Fellow Thomas Quattlebaum is working with officials and local governments in Hampton Roads on cost-efficient ways to address rising waters. "For example, if you're tearing up a city road to update infrastructure, there may be an opportunity to incorporate nature-based infiltration options like rain gardens that can help with our current flooding problems as well as better prepare us for impending sea-level rise threats and improve water quality for now and well into the future," according to Thomas.

CBF is studying and promoting proven nature-based techniques that will help communities prepare for the challenges ahead.

Find out more below or on our interactive map.

Success Stories

These case studies outline successful nature-based solutions to recurrent flooding and sea level rise in Hampton Roads, Virginia.


Birdsong Wetlands Norfolk VA


Norfolk's first living shoreline withstands storms and hurricanes (Birdsong Wetlands, Norfolk, Va.)

Chesterfield Heights Norfolk VA


Preserving history by preparing for sea level rise (Chesterfield Heights, Norfolk, Va.)

Colley Bay Phase II


Replacing concrete and debris with native wetlands (Colley Bay, Norfolk, Va.)

Colley Bay Living Shoreline video


Replacing concrete and debris with native wetlands (Colley Bay,

Haven Creek Norfolk VA


Living shoreline revitalizes a waterfront promenade (Haven Creek, Norfolk, Va.)

Rocky shoal and berm on Elizabeth River. Photo by Morgan Heim


Tidal marsh restoration and oyster reef proves habitat-based resiliency (Money Point, Chesapeake, Va.)

Myrtle Park Norfolk VA


Wetlands restoration converts a barren eyesore into a beautiful park (Myrtle Park, Norfolk, Va.)

Paul Burbank Elem Hampton VA


Rain gardens and wetlands lead to less flooding and cleaner water in Hampton neighborhood (Paul Burbank Elementary, Hampton, Va.)


American Rivers has more case studies on successful projects around the country.


ASLA also features case studies from across the U.S.


CBF has also compiled a directory of successful nature-based solutions to flooding and sea level rise in Hampton Roads and Richmond here.

Cover: The Homeowner's Guide to FloodingHomeowner's Guide to Flooding

This guide presents many of the different nature-based solutions homeowners can use to reduce runoff. It also provides resources for how to design and install of several of these practices.

Once in place, these steps can help alleviate flooding problems and keep pollutants out of local waterways. They are just some of the many practices that you can use to accomplish this and also beautify your neighborhood, save money, attract wildlife, and provide other benefits


  • Downspout disconnections* reroute rooftop drainage pipes from draining rainwater into the storm sewers to draining it into rain barrels, cisterns, or permeable areas that allow it to filter into the soil instead of washing polluted runoff into waterways.
  • Living shorelines incorporate strategically placed native plants, sand, stone, and organic materials to reduce wave energy and erosion by slowing waves and holding and filtering runoff. Unlike lining waterways with concrete, asphalt, or riprap, living shorelines allow natural coastal process to take place, maintaining beaches and wetlands. They also preserve wetlands by allowing their gradual landward retreat as sea levels rise.
  • Living breakwaters reduce wave energy, storm surges, erosion, and flooding through a system of in-water breakwaters, constructed of concrete and other materials. The breakwaters are planted with oysters that grow over time, making the breakwater larger. These are similar to conventional breakwaters but have added environmental benefits, like improved water quality and wildlife habitat.
  • Permeable pavers are porous materials such as gravel, crushed stone, open paving blocks or pervious paving blocks for driveways, parking areas, walkways, and patios that increase infiltration of rain water into the soil, minimizing runoff from those areas.  
  • Rain barrels* collect and store rainfall for later use. When designed properly, they slow and reduce polluted runoff and provide a source of water.
  • Rain gardens* are plant-filled shallow basins that collect and absorb rainwater running off from rooftops, sidewalks, and streets. This practice mimics natural systems in order to keep polluted runoff from entering waterways.
  • Tree boxes* are urban rain gardens surrounded by vertical walls and either open or closed bottoms. They collect and absorb rainwater running off from sidewalks, parking lots, and streets. They are ideal for small sites in dense urban areas and as a streetscaping element.
  • Vegetated swales* are planted channels that slow, hold and treat polluted runoff from rainfall and storms. They are particularly well suited to being placed along streets and parking lots.

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