On October 28, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell joined U.S. Sen. Tom Carper and other federal, state and local officials to announce the completion of a $38 million marsh restoration project at Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge in Delaware. The restoration effort, supported by federal funding for Hurricane Sandy recovery, was implemented to improve the resilience of refuge wetlands against future storms and sea-level rise, protecting nearby communities and providing valuable habitat for birds and other wildlife.
Four years ago this week Hurricane Sandy magnified breaches in the dunes at Prime Hook, reducing the elevation and resulting in the rapid inundation of saltwater, killing freshwater vegetation and increasing habitat loss by converting back barrier areas that were once marsh into open water. The restoration project, which began June 2015, rebuilds about one mile of existing dunes and barrier beach, closes breaches created by the storm and restores about 4,000 acres of back-barrier tidal marsh by re-establishing natural tidal flow.
Secretary Jewell noted the marsh restoration project is one of the largest and most complex ever undertaken on the U.S. East Coast and is a model for other coastal resilience efforts around the country. “Sandy taught us that if we listen to Mother Nature and learn what she does so well, we might be able to make our natural systems more resilient. And there’s no better example than right here at Prime Hook,” said Jewell.
Its location on the Delaware Bay makes Prime Hook refuge a key stopover site for hundreds of thousands of migratory birds on their route along the Atlantic Flyway, including federally listed species such as rufa red knots and piping plover. The Delaware Bay hosts the largest population of spawning horseshoe crabs, which helps sustain these migratory shorebirds when they stop here to feast on horseshoe crab eggs.
Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge staff has stated that the completed project has already shown signs of success, including record numbers of horseshoe crabs, migratory birds such as least tern, American oystercatcher and the refuge’s first-ever piping plover nest. Even before work was finished, staff noticed that the restored beach areas held up better under winter storm Jonas in January 2016, which caused higher tides than Sandy, than nearby non-restored areas.
“Nearly eight years ago, Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge was experiencing record flooding, with habitats being lost and communities being threatened by rising water. When Superstorm Sandy hit Delaware hard four years ago, the refuge’s problems became even worse,” said U.S. Sen. Tom Carper. “Prime Hook is home to hundreds of species of animals, and an important part of our state’s economy that brings in tourists from all over the country. That’s why returning it to its natural state so it can thrive was doubly important. The costs associated with responding to and recovering from a hurricane such as Sandy – both the human and the financial costs – are so severe that we simply cannot afford to face this devastation over and over again. I am proud this recovery effort used sound science and mitigation to protect this refuge for years to come.”
Wendi Weber, Northeast Regional Director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said her agency has invested $167 million in Sandy funding for 70 projects designed to restore and strengthen coastal and inland areas in 14 states. This includes specific efforts to enhance and protect more than 63,000 acres of coastal marshes at 14 sites from Virginia to Massachusetts.
“Restored marshes within Prime Hook refuge will provide benefits to several adjacent and nearby communities such as Milton and Milford and create additional habitat for birds such as red knots, American oystercatchers, and piping plovers,” Weber said. “At Prime Hook and throughout the Atlantic Coast region, these kinds of projects also improve water quality, provide recreation opportunities — such as fishing, hiking, wildlife watching and more — and support the local coastal tourism economy.”
Al Rizzo, project leader for Coastal Delaware National Wildlife Refuge Complex at Prime Hook and Bombay Hook national wildlife refuges, said monitoring of the biological response will continue over upcoming years. The refuge works closely with partners at the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) and the University of Delaware to monitor vegetation, birds, fish, and physical factors such as water quality and marsh elevation.
The Department of the Interior agencies is investing $787 million in Hurricane Sandy recovery funds for hundreds of projects to clean up and repair damaged refuges and parks; restore coastal marshes, wetlands and shorelines; connect and open waterways to improve flood control; and increase our scientific understanding of how these natural areas are changing. These investments support the goal of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan to make communities more resilient to increasingly intense future storms that are the result of a changing climate.
“If we heed the lessons of Hurricane Sandy and take proactive steps today to make wildlife habitat and local communities more resilient, we will dramatically improve our ability to withstand extreme storms and sea-level rise in the decades ahead,” said Collin O’Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation.
“The restoration of Primehook National Wildlife Refuge is a shining example of how all levels of government must come together to invest in natural defenses that safeguard wildlife and protect communities. The National Wildlife Federation thanks Senator Carper, Secretary Jewell, and Governor Markell for their leadership in making the vision of a more resilient Delaware Bayshore a reality,” said O’Mara.
Prime Hook restoration project partners include: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; Delaware Department of Natural Resources; Federal Highway Administration; National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration; U.S. Geological Survey; Sussex Bird Club; Ducks Unlimited; The Nature Conservancy; Friends of Prime Hook; and the Delaware Nature Society.
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