Earlier this month, the Department of the Interior released $475 million in emergency Hurricane Sandy disaster relief appropriations, which including $20 million to begin the Prime Hook marsh restoration. This development marks an significant benchmark towards resolving a challenge that has been difficult on local families as well as the ecosystem at Prime Hook Wildlife Refuge for over seven years.
In 2006 the dune system that protects the area of Fowler Beach Road was originally breached during Hurricane Etnesto. Since then, repeated Nor’easter storms in 2009 and 2010 added to this land erosion by opening up breaches in several areas of the dunes. Again in 2012 the main breach was deepened and widened by Hurricane Sandy from a diameter of about 300 feet to approximately 1,500 feet wide.
Over the years Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge has seen drastic environmental changes and political challenges for state and local officials. Flooding of the Prime Hook area has left many residents fearful about the future of their houses and properties. Environmentalists also argue that the severity of recent storms has diminished the health of the surrounding ecosystem.
Restoration has been attempted several times including the dune rebuild in 2011 which was destroyed just weeks later as the restored sand was washed away. After this failure occurred, officials stated that a Comprehensive Plan must be completed to move forward with any restoration or recovery process.
The Comprehensive Plan (CCP) was completed in December 2012 after local and national legislators urged Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior Ken Salazar to conclude the CCP for the Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge. The Plan includes a strategy to restore the area containing the breaches between Prime Hook Road and Fowler Road to a salt marsh system.
According to Atkins Global, an engineering firm contracted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the restoration of the breaches will take between 500,000 and 800,000 cubic yards of material to complete. Officials from Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge state that the restoration project is the “service’s preferred management action in the Comprehensive Conservation Plan for Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge” and is expected to be approved in the coming weeks. Once the CCP is approved, officials at Prime Hook plan to move ahead with design and further engineering studies for the marsh restoration.
“By restoring Unit II to a healthy and resilient salt marsh, we would create an environment that is more resilient to the influence of coastal storms,” stated Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge officials. “We do not expect that the project would eliminate all future flooding of Prime Hook Beach community or its access roads.”
Local State officials Senator Gary Simpson and Representative Harvey Kenton released a public letter last week acknowledging that the restoration phase will not be a complete solution to the threat of coastal storms and flooding. They also state that “the decision to restore the marsh and appropriate the initial investment signals a welcome course correction.” They attribute the initial marsh restoration plans to a bipartisan cooperation on the state and federal levels, including the support of the congressional delegation, Governor Jack Markell and Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control Secretary Collin O’Mara.
“We understand this project is not a panacea. Coastal communities, especially Prime Hook, will continue to be under a threat from coastal storms and flooding,” wrote the two officials in a joint public letter. “After years of struggle, we believe we are finally on a path that will ultimately prove beneficial for local farmers, homeowners and wildlife.” The letter also states that more funding will be needed as the project will take years to complete.
Officials from Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge say that the start of the marsh restoration is still a year out. They are currently in the planning stages and collecting data from the hydraulic studies to determine what the marsh will do once it is restored.
“Before we begin the project we will be presenting alternative methods for marsh restoration and building of the sand berms to the public,” stated Art Coppola, Prime Hook Refuge Manager. “Over the next several months we will keep the public updated through our website and public notices.” For more information on the Prime Hook Wildlife Refuge marsh restoration, individuals are urged to visit http://www.fws.gov/northeast/primehook/marshrestoration.html.