Work to restore the marshes at Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge is expected to start this month, the first phase of a $38 million project to build storm and sea level rise resilience into the natural landscape. The project will repair breached marshes and reconstruct severely damaged shoreline, including critical dune restoration. It will also restore approximately 4,000 acres of back-barrier tidal marsh, which will enhance and support a long stretch of barrier beach along the Delaware Bay. The resilience and restoration efforts are funded by the Disaster Relief Appropriations Act of 2013 through the Department of the Interior.
Al Rizzo, project leader for the Coastal Delaware National Wildlife Refuge Complex, says the first phase of the project, which involves carving out relic drainage channels that historically allowed the marsh to drain, will begin in June. Once the marsh drainage work is complete, the second phase, expected to start in October, will be to pump in 1.1 million cubic yards of sand along 7,000 linear feet of shoreline and fill the deep cuts formed during Hurricane Sandy and other storms. The dunes and restored beach area will be planted with beach grasses and shrubs to hold the sand in place. Work is expected to be complete by April 2016.
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. Officials stated that a Comprehensive Plan must be completed to move forward with any restoration or recovery process. The Comprehensive Plan (CCP), which encompasses much more than just the marsh restoration, 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.
Rizzo said restored marshes at the refuge will provide a more resilient coast against future storms and create additional habitat for birds, including American oystercatchers and federally listed species such as rufa red knots and piping plovers. For more information on this project and other Service Hurricane Sandy resilience and recovery projects, individuals are encouraged to visit http://www.fws.gov/hurricane/sandy/.