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Save the lakeshores! Shoreline stabilization at FortWhyte Alive

Posted on March 19, 2024

Get ready to dive into the world of saving FortWhyte Alive’s lakeshores with Eric Olson.

If you’ve been exploring FortWhyte Alive for long enough, you may have noticed something concerning. Parts of our shorelines will occasionally be worn away or fall into the lakes due to erosion. Not only is this detrimental to valuable riparian habitat, but phosphorous released into the water from eroded soil negatively impacts the water quality of the entire lake. Erosion can also cause economic damage to human infrastructure such as trails, recreation areas, roads, or even buildings.

Here we’re diving into the work that goes into planning, designing, and implementing a shoreline stabilization project using soil bioengineering techniques. Soil bioengineering is a “soft” engineering technique which stabilizes shorelines through the establishment of permanent vegetation, using living and inert, organic construction materials. This is in contrast to “hard” engineering approaches such as the limestone riprap installed just south of the project site in 2021, seen below in Figure 1.

people watching birds fly over lake

Understanding the underlying causes of erosion is the foundation of any successful erosion control effort. Let’s look at a few major factors influencing the stability of the shorelines at FortWhyte:

  • The steep, vertical shape of most of our shorelines combined with the fluctuating water levels does not lend itself well to the natural establishment of the plant species that would stabilize the soil and shield it from wave energy. This has left large stretches of shoreline bare and vulnerable to wave erosion and undercutting. These steep shorelines are a result of the artificial construction of our lakes, which were originally excavated as clay pit mines!
  • This artificially created habitat is very new on an ecological timescale. It takes time and specific conditions for plant seeds to disperse into new habitats and establish new communities. The lakes have been surrounded by upland plant communities and agricultural or residential areas since their creation. This lack of connection to potential seed sources has likely resulted in the relatively low diversity of shoreline-adapted plants that we see today.
  • The benthivorous feeding habits of the invasive Eurasian carp present in some of the lakes are very destructive to the submerged or emergent aquatic vegetation which does manage to get established. On bare eroded soil, invasive weeds like sweet clover tend to outcompete desirable native plants before they can even be established, without offering much soil stabilisation themselves.


figure showing eroding shoreline over time

Figure 1: The project area, just West of the Richardson Interpretive Centre. GIS (Geographic Information Systems) is a valuable tool for understanding erosion through time. This map was created in QGIS by georectifying historic orthophotography tiles available for free from the City of Winnipeg. It tracks the historical recession of the shoreline and calculates the area lost to erosion from 2005-2021 with fairly reasonable precision.


When considering where to apply limited resources for maximum results there are many things to consider. The site in Figure 1 was selected for a high-effort stabilization project for the following considerations:

High wave energy: The prevailing wind direction coincides with the lengthwise orientation of Lake Devonian and focuses the majority of wave energy on its’ Eastern end. The likelihood of natural or low-effort stabilization efforts succeeding here is low.

Threat to Infrastructure: This site borders the recreation area beside the Richardson Interpretive Centre. Erosion directly subtracts from the usable area and if it is left to continue, could threaten the usability of an increasingly larger area over time. Erosion is also simply unpleasant to look at.

Ease of access: It is easy to bring in the necessary materials and equipment to this site. This also means the public gets to see the project unfold and learn about it!


A project must be designed around the constraints realized through careful study of the site and stakeholders if it is to have any chance of success. Let’s look at the major design constraints of this site in more detail, and explore some solutions:

Wave action: this project will need hard physical armouring to protect the establishing plant community from damaging wave energy. An outer edge of coir logs and live dogwood fascines will protect the plant community during its’ roughly 3-year establishment period. Anti-scouring branches will dissipate some wave energy before it reaches the shore, while also providing desirable shelter and habitat for aquatic organisms.

Fluctuating water levels: The water level in these lakes can vary seasonally and between years; 2022 saw a nearly 2-metre rise in water levels in the spring, while other years have seen water levels drop over winter. Two armoured terraces will be installed, a lower one at the expected typical spring water level, and an upper one that can handle a roughly 1 in 10-year high water level, to account for most of the probable water level changes over the 3-year establishment period.

Visibility and Aesthetics: Maintaining a good view is important in this highly frequented recreation area. Further, since it is a highly visible spot, why not make it as beautiful as possible? Live woody construction material will consist exclusively of dogwood, as it grows to an acceptable height and is beautiful even in the winter. The focus will be on establishing a highly diverse community of shorter-growing riparian species such as sedges, rushes, flags, grasses, and cattails.

Animal disturbance: Many animals are waiting to devour young seedlings, tunnel into the project, or trample it. Exclusion fencing will be installed if it proves to be necessary while plants are established.


This type of shoreline bioengineering project falls within the fascinating field of restoration ecology, which is distinct from conservation ecology. If a damaged or destroyed ecosystem cannot naturally recover to a stable point even when the degrading disturbance is removed through passive conservation efforts, then active restoration through human intervention is required to establish a stable, functioning ecosystem. This field of study offers some valuable guidance for project design, and we will explore a few of those here.

Diversify your investment to reduce risk: Planting a high diversity of species maximizes the chances that at least some of them will successfully establish across the wide variety of growing conditions that are possible. Diverse plant communities are more resilient to disturbances and changes to growing conditions such as drought or flooding. When multiple species fill the same niche, an ecosystem can recover if individual species are lost to events such as disease or insect outbreaks.

Study analogous sites to inform your design: An analogous site is one which is located nearby and closely matches the physical conditions of your site (water regime, soil properties, topography, etc), but hosts an ecosystem with the functional traits you desire (such as stable, vegetated shorelines). Replicating something which you know works is a great way to guarantee success.

Focus maximum effort on a minimum area: Experienced field practitioners (including myself) of restoration ecology agree: Spreading your resources thin across the largest possible area is a recipe for failure. Focusing more of your resources into a smaller, clearly defined area is a recipe for success.

A double layer of live dogwood fascines underlies this layer of coir logs, both of which are held in place by live dogwood stakes. Anti-scouring branches can be seen projecting out into open water.

Above: A double layer of live dogwood fascines underlies this layer of coir logs, both of which are held in place by live dogwood stakes. Anti-scouring branches can be seen projecting out into open water.

Backfilling with wetland spoils.

Above: Backfilling with wetland spoils.


Now let’s follow along with the implementation.

The steps are pretty much identical for both tiers, so it will only be described once.

  1. Pre-installation: A wide variety of riparian plant seeds were collected around FortWhyte and other areas such as the Red, Pembina, Winnipeg, and Boggy rivers. A full list of these species is included at the end. A few transplants were grown on-site at FortWhyte Farms. A good supply of large dogwood stakes was harvested with the help of FortWhyte volunteers. Additional wooden stakes were cut from untreated scrap lumber from the woodworking studio. Bundles of dogwood branches were tied into live fascines. Spruce boughs and particularly large and bushy dogwood branches were collected to be used as anti-scouring branches.
  2. Site prep: Weeds, plant material, and driftwood were removed from the shoreline to create a clean, smooth seed bed and ensure easy installation of the erosion control fabric.
  3. Installing the stakes for securing the coir logs and fascines: The outer edge of the new shoreline was marked out with a row of dogwood stakes, spaced about 2’ apart. A second row of stakes was installed about 1’ behind the first. These two rows were installed following the water level so that the fascines and coir logs held between them would be fairly level.
  4. Installing the fascines and coir logs: A row of live dogwood fascines was installed between the rows of dogwood stakes, on top of the anti-scouring branches, followed by a row of coir logs on top. Scrap wood stakes were added in strategic spots for additional structural support.
  5. Backfilling with wetland spoils: The space behind the coir logs was backfilled with spoils from the Waterfowl Gardens wetland restoration project, which consisted mainly of organic wetland muck and cattail biomass. It was levelled and packed down to create a nice even seeding surface that sloped slightly upwards toward the bank. This fill material was chosen in hopes that the spongy and fibrous organic cattail material would store a lot of moisture and wick it up to the root zone, and also that some seed bank or live material within it could sprout.
  6. Seeding: The seed was sown by hand across the backfill seed bed, one species at a time, to ensure even coverage. See the list of species at the end of this document.
  7. Installing erosion control fabric: The fabric was rolled out and cut into sections. The fabric was installed after the fill was already in place in the lower tier, which was a mistake. It was quite difficult to push the end of the fabric down between the coir logs and the fill to secure it. With that lesson learned, the bottom end of the fabric was pre-installed along the coir logs of the upper tier before the fill was added.
  8. Transplants: A few transplants had been grown in containers over the summer for use in this project. A thin slit was cut in the fabric to allow for planting, after which the fabric was tucked closely back around the base of the plant.
  9. Monitoring and Maintenance: There’s not much point in doing this type of project if you’re not going to budget time to monitor it for problems and fix them. Lack of follow-up maintenance is the number one cause of project failure. This includes weeding, watering during dry periods, replacing dead plants, managing pests, and fixing any physical deterioration promptly. Evaluating what was or wasn’t successful is key to improving future projects. Any process like this should always be improved through experimentation, and should always be open to change.

Species used, and their collection locations:

Spartina pectinata – Prairie Cordgrass (FortWhyte)
Scirpus cyperinus – Woolgrass (Winnipeg and Boggy Rivers)
Carex vulpinoidea – Fox Sedge (FortWhyte)
Iris versicolor – Northern Blue Flag (Winnipeg River)
Acorus americanus – Sweet Flag (Prairie Moon Nursery, MN)
Eupatorium maculatum – Spotted Joe-Pye Weed (FortWhyte)
Bolboshcoenus maritimus – Prairie Bulrush (FortWhyte)
Carex trichocarpa – Hairy Fruited Lake Sedge (Prairie Moon Nursery, MN)
Sparganium Eurycarpum – Giant Bur Reed (Prairie Moon Nursery, MN)
Amorpha fruticosa – False Indigobush (Red River)

And many more sedges and rushes which were not able to be identified to species (It’s hard!).

Feel free to visit this site and watch it grow, but please refrain from stepping into the project area to avoid damaging the establishing plants.


Eric Olson is FortWhyte Alive’s resident agroecologist, program assistant, farm operations assistant – all while running special projects that protect, enhance, and restore ecological functions and wildlife here at FortWhyte Alive! When he’s not restoring shorelines he is either found at FortWhyte Farms or leading groups on the trails.