Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Greater Resilience along the Great South Bay

March 1, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

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Long Island was devastated by Superstorm Sandy in October 2012 as storm surges surpassed record highs for the region. This monstrous storm caused $6.7 billion in property damage on Long Island’s waterfront and displaced many residents from their homes for prolonged periods of time.

With sea levels rising and the potential for more frequent and extreme storms, Long Island is not safe from another catastrophic weather event. Residents need to be better prepared for future storms and the island itself needs to be stronger.

Restoring degraded wetlands along the coast of Long Island to healthy marsh habitat is one key approach for Long Island to build natural resistance to major storm damages. Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone declares that, “After the barrier beaches our critical second line of defense against storms like Sandy is our wetlands… If we are going to protect ourselves from future storms we have to rebuild our coastal wetland defenses.”

Healthy coastal wetlands can reduce flooding from storms by slowing and absorbing storm surges and rainwater. Marshes also protect our shorelines from erosion by buffering wave action and trapping sediments within their vegetation.

In 2014, Suffolk County was awarded $1.3 million in federal grant funds through the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to support wetland restoration in Suffolk County. The project’s goal is to restore approximately 400 acres of degraded salt marsh habitat, thereby enhancing the resiliency of Suffolk County’s South Shore coastal ecosystems against the risks related to storm events and long-term sea level rise. The proposed areas for restoration include publicly owned sites within the Great South Bay towns of Babylon, Islip, and Brookhaven.

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The project will use an ecosystem-based restoration approach to rehabilitate degraded salt marsh areas affected by waterlogging, formation of mudflats and pannes (isolated stagnant pools), erosion, and invasive common reed. Integrated marsh management techniques, already proven successful in a federal wetland restoration project at Wertheim National Wildlife Refuge in Shirley, will be implemented by Suffolk County. Since 2004, the Suffolk County project team worked closely with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the Wertheim project, utilizing the team’s extensive expertise in designing, conducting, and analyzing large scale marsh restoration projects. Other key members of the county’s project team include experts from The Nature Conservancy, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, U.S. Geological Survey, and the towns of Babylon, Islip, and Brookhaven.

The restoration efforts will enhance native wetland vegetation health and cover and improve natural sedimentation. As a result of improved conditions for native vegetation and sediment capture, the marsh is expected to become more resilient to flooding due to storms and rising sea levels.

Along with providing buffer areas to prevent the loss and damage of property, salt marshes are critical for healthy fisheries. The mosaics of snaking channels, or tidal creeks, that make up the South Shore marshes provide food, refuge, and spawning and nursery habitat for numerous aquatic species, including shrimp, blue crab, and many finfish. Salt marshes also provide essential habitat for resident and migrating shorebirds and waterfowl and other wildlife.

Coastal wetlands provide important water quality benefits to our bays and oceans. Salt marshes filter stormwater runoff and metabolize excess nutrients. This ecosystem service of nutrient pollution reduction is critical for clarifying water and creating more suitable conditions for eelgrass and other aquatic life to thrive in Long Island’s coastal waters.

The project will also support more natural physical and biological control of mosquitoes, reducing the need to use pesticides on the marsh while helping to prevent threats to public health from mosquito-borne disease. In addition, volunteer and research opportunities for students through pre- and post-project monitoring activities will also be a component of the project.

The salt marshes of Long Island are as essential to our economy and culture as they are to healthy fisheries, coastlines, and communities. In addition to providing defense from storms and numerous environmental services, coastal wetlands are valuable open space areas for outdoor recreation and education.

This multidimensional Long Island wetlands restoration project will enhance storm resiliency for the adjacent coastal communities in the Sandy-impacted towns of Babylon, Islip, and Brookhaven while benefiting overall environmental health along the Great South Bay.

By Jennifer McGivern

Jennifer McGivern is a Research Technician for the Suffolk County Department of Economic Development and Planning, Division of Water Quality Improvement.

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