Expert Q&A: Erin Hague Discusses Designing Solutions for Coastal and Ecosystem Protection, Restoration, and Resilience
Erin Hague is director of Tetra Tech’s Center for Coastal Services in southeast Florida and has more than 25 years of experience specializing in shoreline protection and coastal restoration projects. She is a Certified Environmental Professional and Envision Sustainability Professional. Erin’s expertise is in designing solutions for coastal and ecosystem protection, restoration, and resilience. She has served as a technical expert for numerous small- and large-scale projects in the coastal United States and is proficient in managing multidisciplinary projects involving geotechnical and biological field investigations, coastal planning, engineering design, stakeholder coordination, and permitting.
Erin also has managed the environmental components of significant, award-winning coastal restoration projects in North Carolina and Florida. The Florida Association of Environmental Professionals recognized her with its Outstanding Collaboration Award for the Port Miami Harbor Deepening Project.
Erin has a bachelor’s degree in geology from Northeastern University and a master’s degree in Coastal Zone Management from Nova Southeastern University.
What led you to a career as a coastal ecologist?
I was first introduced to the coastal and marine environment through scuba diving while pursuing a minor in marine science as part of my undergraduate studies. After graduation, I pursued work as a geomorphologist with the U.S. Geological Survey and then as a wetland scientist for the Massachusetts Highway Department.
Pursuing scuba diving recreationally and being immersed in a habitat foreign to everyday life—but close enough to touch—continued to intrigue me. I wanted to find a way that I could link my passion for scuba diving to my professional life and make a difference by helping to preserve that habitat. I later pursued a master's degree in Coastal Zone Management with a concentration in marine biology while also working full-time as a marine scientist for a small firm in South Florida. One of my most memorable, complex projects was in North Carolina and involved the relocation of an inlet channel and beach nourishment for shoreline protection. This project was a tipping point in my career, working alongside coastal engineers to develop a nature-based solution to shoreline erosion.
What does a typical coastal or shoreline restoration project involve?
Because the coastal environment is so dynamic, there isn't a typical project. The marine environment is continuously changing, even in the same location. What is typical, however, is the process we use throughout the coastal restoration project life cycle, which typically begins with a feasibility study or conceptual design through construction management.
First, we coordinate with the client on the project goals and objectives and identify the project area and habitat types that may be affected by the project. Next, we review historic data sets and identify data gaps to determine the surveys required to fully understand existing conditions and community types. Our team of engineers and scientists develops a cooperative approach to project design and implementation. As the project moves through 30 percent, 60 percent, and final design, we identify green and grey solutions to develop a project that avoids or minimizes impacts, provides opportunities for restoration, and can adapt to rising sea levels as our climate changes.
What considerations are included when working on coastal projects in different geographic regions?
Tidal ranges and coastal communities vary in different geographies. In New York, tidal ranges are close to five feet, where in the Florida Keys, they are close to one foot. These ranges impact our approach to field investigations and project designs. We look at the project area and begin formulating questions. Is it a protected area (e.g., embayment)? Or is it exposed to high wave energy? What is the local wave climate?
We also consider the project goals and objectives and the type of natural resource impacts that may result. We consider the regulatory climate at the federal, state, and local levels, which is key to the success of the project. Last, but certainly not least, we consider the species and the habitat occurring in the project area, and what’s currently influencing the success or failure of those resources. There may be a unique habitat specific to a geographic region where we need to employ local experts. My work has covered a broad geographic region, from New England to New York, the mid-Atlantic, Florida and the Gulf coasts, the western and eastern Caribbean, and Washington state.
What are some of the major challenges and complexities facing coastal projects today?
The biggest challenge we face is designing solutions that are resilient and can adapt to rising sea levels. Our designs are influenced by the projected life span of the project. A short-term design-life project, like an oyster reef, and a long-term design-life project, like infrastructure, carry different risks. Our work considers the risk tolerance of each project and how the final design will mitigate project risk.
What changes have you seen in shoreline and coastal restoration during your career?
Historically, environmental considerations, regulatory coordination, and mitigation design were integrated late in the project life—typically after the 60 or 90 percent project design stage. In the early 2000s, regulatory agencies shifted their focus to understanding the habitat and community influences early on in a project's design. Lately, our work has a more balanced approach that couples engineering and science and moves towards a living shoreline design that provides shoreline protection, restores and enhances habitats, and adapts to changing conditions.
I worked on a marsh restoration project in Long Island, New York, for the Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery’s Living with the Bay: Resiliency Strategy that is funded through Hurricane Sandy Disaster Recovery Funds. The Living with the Bay Marsh Restoration project includes a multipurpose design that focuses on resiliency. The design protects against flooding; restores and improves marsh habitat; improves water quality in the West Hempstead Bay system; protects marshlands from erosion and fills flooded interiors to increase marsh vegetation; and provides an educational component.