Wetlands. Flickr

NJ - Novel method will help restore Delaware and New Jersey salt marshes

Large storms can devastate coastal communities when no buffers exist to protect them. But salt marshes, which are coastal wetlands flooded and drained by salt water from the tides, can shield buildings and homes.

“When Hurricane Sandy hit, if we didn’t have salt marshes there, a lot of homes would actually be more damaged,” said Emmy Casper, a wildlife biologist with the Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey. “They’re like little sponges that absorb a bunch of water that would otherwise be flooding houses.”

However, coastal towns are at greater risk of flooding today. That’s because salt marshes have been degraded by farming methods, and even historic practices meant to prevent mosquito breeding. Sea level rise caused by climate change puts more strain on the marshes.

“We’re really realizing the importance of saving our salt marshes, and realizing we need to do something now,” said Kaity Ripple, a fish and wildlife biologist for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

So, the environmental group Ducks Unlimited is using more than $500,000 in funding from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and other donors to restore salt marshes in Delaware and New Jersey. The organization is partnering with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and other local groups such as the Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey.

Ducks Unlimited will dig shallow channels called “runnels,” allowing standing water to escape more rapidly and restore the marshes to their natural state. This project uses a technique that’s low-cost and could potentially decrease the need for large-scale projects. The technique is new to the mid-Atlantic region, but has already shown success in New England.

“If you look at an unhealthy salt marsh, it’s very saturated. You’ll see a lot of bigger pools,” said Joe Genzel, a communications coordinator for Ducks Unlimited. “With a healthy salt marsh, you’ll see a lot of interconnected smaller pools. And so that’s what runnels do.”

Ducks Unlimited also will partially fill mosquito ditches. The project will take place over the next two years, and if successful, will continue at other sites where salt marsh habitat has deteriorated

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service found that about 70,000 of the 200,000 acres of salt marshes in New Jersey are degraded, and Delaware faces similar problems. The farming of salt hay for cattle and grazing animals, along with dikes, have significantly impacted marshes. They’re also still facing the effects of historic draining to manage mosquitoes.

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