Living shorelines: coastal restoration and preservation with MNR graduate Josh Mills
April 4, 2023
By Lindsay Kuczera
On any given day, you may find Josh Mills helping construct an oyster reef, plant submerged aquatic vegetation, or consult with the local government to restore a coastal marsh. These natural solutions are a type of green infrastructure known as living shorelines. Living shorelines provide numerous benefits including improving water quality, providing fisheries habitat, increasing biodiversity, buffering during waves and hurricanes, sequestering carbon, and promoting community recreation.
Landing a dream job
Josh was a grant-funded contractor working on living shorelines for various nonprofits when his funding ran out, leading him to take a position in geographic information systems (GIS). That’s when Josh started to look at graduate programs so he could have the education he needed to refocus his work back to living shorelines. During his initial search online, he came across a case study on environmental stewardship and cross-sector collaboration written by the students of Virginia Tech’s Master of Natural Resources program. Diving deeper, Josh realized that the graduate program offered the type of flexible curriculum and knowledgeable instructors he was looking for.
This intent to find his dream job through the pursuit of an MNR degree paid off when Josh accepted a new position as a Living Shorelines Scientist at Resource Environmental Solutions (RES). Josh learned about RES during a research project for an MNR course. He became inspired by their work and followed them on LinkedIn, in course of time applying for an open position. Now, Josh is helping build the organization’s new coastal program.
The benefits of living shorelines
RES works with a variety of clients including private companies, nonprofits, land trusts, and government agencies. These organizations often employ RES to advise and implement the project, including planning, permitting, stakeholder engagement, and fieldwork. They work collaboratively to ensure the project offers the best solution for the particular issue rather than a one-size-fits-all approach. “We use historical ecology to identify what existed in an area before it degraded, and then make sure we focus on restoring that ecosystem as it was,” Josh added.
One such upcoming project is a one-hundred-acre mangrove forest. It is estimated that mangroves can sequester carbon at a rate ten times greater than mature tropical forests annually, making them exceptional natural solutions to the global climate crisis.
Josh also works with certain organizations to apply nature-based solutions to waterfront properties. In these scenarios, the team treats or stores runoff coming from urban or agricultural sources before it reaches the shoreline. Once it reaches the water, the bivalves—whether oysters, clams, or other mollusks—help filter the water in unison with the seagrass and mangrove installations. These natural solutions also serve as breakwaters, helping to stabilize the shoreline and protect coastal communities against harsh storms, hurricanes, and erosion.
Josh is also responsible for scouting and siting ideal properties for a seagrass nursery. “The goal is to implement the first true seagrass nursery built at a large enough scale that it can be a substantial source of blue carbon—the ocean’s ability to sequester and store atmospheric carbon,” said Josh. Seagrasses have been used by humans throughout history to weave furniture, thatched roofs, and more; but they produce the biggest benefits for humans and the ocean when in their native environment. Seagrasses support commercial fisheries and biodiversity, sequester atmospheric carbon dioxide, filter nutrients from runoff, and reduce erosion. In fact, their versatility makes them one of the most valuable ecosystems in the world. After establishing a successful seagrass nursery, it will be an opportune environment for Josh and his team to add an oyster hatchery and eventually coral restoration to the site.
Incorporating art into nature
This coastal work can have multiple purposes, both to restore and protect the ecosystem and to encourage responsible tourism and eco-art. Josh is working with local organizations to create an underwater snorkeling trail. One such example is Phil Foster Park in Florida where statues of hammerhead sharks are part of the snorkeling and diving area. By using new 3D printing technology, concrete molds that could be used for oyster reef or breakwaters gabions can now be designed in unusual and interesting ways. “This is an awesome way to bring an art component to coastal restoration. And it also brings in a whole new audience to the area,” said Josh.
Making the most of the MNR
Josh’s background working on coastal issues in Florida gave him the experience to hand-pick MNR courses that he knew would be applicable to the work he wanted to pursue. One of the main challenges to coastal ecosystem health in Florida is the freshwater discharge from central Florida’s agricultural sites. Traditional monoculture farming, cattle farming, and dairy farms can contaminate water sources and leach out into the ocean. Whether it's agricultural runoff, stormwater runoff, septic discharge, or other upstream issues, it’s all connected. “Solving sustainability problems means understanding the relationship between social and ecological systems. Studying food and agriculture provides an opportunity to learn how policy shapes all aspects of resilient communities, including economic and environmental factors,” said Jennifer Jones, MNR faculty and instructor in the "Food Policy and Sustainability" course.
“You can build a living shoreline and implement resiliency components on the coast, but you need to know what’s causing the issues to begin with,” Josh said. Taking classes such as Food Policy and Sustainability, Urban Water Systems, and Water Stewardship allowed Josh to make the connection between these issues and apply strategic solutions. “I think this is a good example of how mid-level career professionals can apply their real-world experience to make the most of this program,” Josh added.
Josh Mills is responsible for website maintenance and geospatial mapping at Resource Environmental Solutions, including the community science reporting form and data management. Josh received his bachelor’s in Bio-Geography from Florida Atlantic University, where his focus was mapping organisms and their effect on their environment. This work was put into use constructing and restoring living shorelines within the Indian River Lagoon with a focus on oyster ecology. Looking to further his education, Josh enrolled with Virginia Tech to pursue a master’s in Natural Resources and eventually become part of the District Coyote Project. Currently, Josh is a Scientist III for Resource Environmental Solutions, still working on shorelines and resiliency, but with a broader scope for the whole state of Florida.