Break walls, sea walls or break waters are commonly-used terms for SHORELINE PROTECTION or SHORELINE STABILIZATION structures.

Many of us have heard horror stories of cottages being knocked off their foundation or suffering damage from roof-high water rendering them unsalvageable.  While these are extreme cases, the importance of securing your shoreline cannot be emphasized enough.

Courtesy of Rankin Construction Inc.

Guarding from shoreline erosion and flooding is critical for any landowner at risk of property loss and damage.  A properly-designed, well-maintained break wall will help keep the border between water and land intact.

If you are a waterfront landowner or considering becoming one, know that there are many factors to consider before undertaking a shoreline protection project.


Permits must be obtained from multiple levels of government before embarking on a shoreline protection project – Federal, Provincial, and your local Conservation Authority.  Contractors who are experienced in these projects are versed on permit requirements and commonly navigate this aspect of the work.


PARKS CANADA regulates shoreline stabilization projects with sensitivity to environmental responsibility as much as possible.  Detail on requirements and favoured methods of shoreline stabilization is available at

DEPARTMENT OF OCEANS AND FISHERIES CANADA (DFO) is the federal lead for safeguarding our waters and managing Canada’s fisheries, oceans and freshwater resources.  The Fish and Fish Habitat Protection Program ensures compliance with relevant provisions under the Fisheries Act and the Species at Risk Act.  The program reviews proposed works, undertakings and activities that may impact fish and fish habitat.

Learn more at


In Ontario, the beds of most water bodies are Crown land.  The MINISTRY OF NATURAL RESOURCES AND FORESTRY (MNRF) manages these lands – including shore lands – under the Public Lands Act.  The Ministry’s stated focus is ‘to maintain the vitality of our watersheds and to prevent loss of life and property due to natural hazards such as flooding and erosion.’

The MNRF will determine your permit requirements depending on whether you are repairing, replacing, expanding or building a new erosion control structure.  More on Ontario’s standards can be found at


Ontario’s 36 CONSERVATION AUTHORITIES are charged with administering Regulations under the Conservation Authorities Act.  The Conservation Authority in your jurisdiction must be consulted with regard to a permit for construction and repairs of breakwalls.


Shoreline stabilization refers to a variety of structures designed to prevent or reduce erosion.  These works include methods of bio-engineering or rip-rap, as well as a variety of vertical shore walls as described below in the order of least to most costly, (noting that all methods of shoreline stabilization are expensive, ranging from $2,500 to $4,500 per foot).  All walls are embedded below water level, or projected low water level in future.

Courtesy of Rankin Construction Inc.
Courtesy of Rankin Construction Inc.
Courtesy of Rankin Contruction Inc.
Courtesy of Rankin Construction Inc.

Rip-rap is a method of shoreline protection that involves the placement of various sizes of processed rock (riprap) onto a prepared shoreline that is sloped.  While bio-engineering methods are encouraged and practical for secondary waterways, they are not a viable solution for withstanding wave pounding experienced by properties surrounding our Great Lakes.

Precast Concrete barriers are relatively easy to install and the least costly of vertical wall styles.  Slabs are typically 4 to 6 feet long and 2 to 3 feet high.  These barriers are portable and strong, manufactured at a minimum of 5,000 psi and with a life expectancy of 60 years on average.

Armour Stone refers to natural, rough-cut, quarry sourced stone.  These stones are randomly placed in layers or rows forming a larger, heavier barrier than precast concrete, commonly 2 to 3 feet in height and up to 6 tons in weight.

Courtesy of Parks Canada
Courtesy of Rankin Construction Inc.

Steel Sheet Pile wall is constructed using 4 foot wide, interlocking corrugated steel sheets which are driven into sand with a large vibratory hammer to form a continuous wall which is then concrete or steel capped.  These barriers have the advantage of being placed well below the depth possible using other methods.

Cast-in-place Concrete walls are formed by pouring pumped concrete into custom-built wood panels.  This method is advantageous when access to the shoreline is restricted, making it difficult to bring in heavy equipment such as large excavators or cranes.

Each property and situation is unique.  There are many variables that determine which form of barrier works best, sometimes being done in combination. 


Before starting, you are well advised to discuss the project with neighbours.  While you can only conduct work on shore lands directly in front of your property, you could be found responsible for damage to another person’s property associated with the work.  There is also liability in not repairing a collapsed wall in relation to a neighbouring property.  Conversely, your property’s shoreline protection is dependent on the reliability of your neighbours’.

Many shoreline protection projects involve reinforcing or rebuilding existing break walls that have lost integrity over time.  For example, walls in front of cottages that were installed decades ago become unstable because of water patterns that erode the supporting concrete footings.

Often, severe storm damage is the impetus to repair break wall structures.  It is not uncommon to spend $40,000 to $200,000 for this work and insurance does not cover the damage in the majority of cases.

When it comes to recommended solutions, no two walls are the same.  Financial restrictions, neighbouring properties, bedrock base, access to shoreline – all must be taken into account in forming a strategy.

To begin, landowners should consult with an experienced contractor who will evaluate your situation and offer two or three options for a solution and provide rough drawings.  Once the owner selects an option, the contractor will produce engineered drawings.

Courtesy of Rankin Construction Inc.
Courtesy of Rankin Construction Inc.
Courtesy of Rankin Construction Inc.

The contractor can advise on permits needed from regulatory agencies before any work is done and is usually involved in obtaining all three.   When building a new wall, a coastal engineer may be brought into the planning process.  The coastal engineer takes the encroaching of wildlife habitats – such as fish or turtles – into account in approaching the project.  He or she then provides the design drawings and report to be submitted for approval.  It is not uncommon to take 4 or 5 months to obtain permits after drawings and plans are completed.

Once approved, there are restrictions on time frames for working on a shoreline project.  Considerations such as fish spawning prevent working in water from March through June and September to October (6 months in total).   Work can also be delayed due to high water.

Whether newly constructed or updated, all hard structures will require periodic inspection for signs of failure, as well as on-going maintenance, repair, or replacement.


Landowners should ensure that their shoreline protection structure is well-maintained and recognize that having any work done requires significant planning, lead time and expense.

Those considering purchasing a waterfront property should be aware of the upkeep and costs associated with shoreline protection, making sure to have the structure inspected by an expert.  Moreover, be cautious with regard to the condition of break walls of neighbouring properties.

Whether building, repairing or contemplating buying, consult with experienced and trusted professionals.