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Enlighten Me: Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge rebounds from Hurricane Sandy

Prime Hook Wildlife Refuge Saltwater Marshes.jpeg
Rachel Sawicki
Prime Hook Wildlife Refuge Saltwater Marshes

Ten years ago, Hurricane Sandy swept across the East Coast, devastating places like Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge in Sussex County.

But out of the devastation came an opportunity to repair a refuge that was already fighting Mother Nature.

In this week's Enlighten Me, Delaware Public Media’s Rachel Sawicki visits the refuge to see the results of that restoration work.

Delaware Public Media’s Rachel Sawicki examines the state of Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge

Ten years ago, Hurricane Sandy swept across the East Coast, devastating places like Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge in Sussex County.

But out of the devastation came an opportunity to repair a refuge that was already fighting Mother Nature.

The refuge once managed 4,000 acres of artificial freshwater impoundments. Water control devices kept out tidal influence out of what would be salt marsh if nature had its way, and provided habitat for freshwater ducks and game fowl and plenty of space for recreational hunters.

But storm after storm flooded the impounds with saltwater, and it became more trouble than it was worth to keep restoring them. Around 2009, the monumental redesigning task began.

And a few years later, Hurricane Sandy proved a blessing in disguise. Although the storm brought incredible damage to the area, it also provided an opportunity to restore the habitat to its natural state. 3 months after the storm, Congress passed a $50.6 billion package, $17 billion for emergency funding for the states most heavily affected by the storm as well as $33.6 billion for longer-term mitigation and prevention projects. Prime Hook received $38 million to reconstruct the shoreline and replant vegetation.

Having that much money was a unique opportunity, and a rare one. Former project manager Al Rizzo says restorations like Prime Hook need to be done on a bigger scale.

Senator Tom Carper and acting NorthEast Director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service Kyla Hastie talk with refuge ranger Dale Hudson on the water..jpeg
Rachel Sawicki
Senator Tom Carper and acting Northeast Director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service Kyla Hastie talk with refuge ranger Dale Hudson on the water

“What this model was, was like the Field of Dreams of restoration,” Rizzo says. “Restore the ecosystem, everything benefits, they will come.”

The ‘they’ in this case is wildlife that hadn’t been seen in decades, like the American Eel and Blueback Herring. People started to return to the refuge too for fishing and crabbing.

“There's bigger challenges, but bigger rewards,” Rizzo says. “That's what we're seeing today, where every year you come out here and you see a slightly higher trajectory of life, more vegetation popping up.”

Last week, on the anniversary of Sandy’s arrival, Senator Tom Carper visited the refuge and saw what he says is a remarkable difference.

“There was just no vegetation,” Carper says. “The trees, skeletons of tall trees up against the sky.”

He took an airboat ride around the refuge with acting Northeast Regional Director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service Kyla Hastie.

“It’s just amazing to see the difference that has happened here at the refuge since the restoration work,” Hastie says. “All of the fresh marsh grasses, all of the green, it's gone from this, sort of what was turning into an open water system. We were really losing the refuge and so to see it come back in this way and to see the bird life, hundreds and hundreds of birds that are coming through here and to have this gem on the Atlantic coast for birds to stop and rest on their long migration. It's just really so exciting to see that progress and to see that success.”

“We invested a huge amount of taxpayer dollars,” Carper says. “And we decided to rather than try to tell mother nature what to do, to take a cue from her and let mother nature take its course.”

Carper believes Prime Hook’s restoration only addresses symptoms of the real problem – climate change. He says Congress needs to start looking at the root of the problem and fund more projects to address that.

“Why are we getting these terrible storms that are getting worse over time?” Carper says. “More powerful, more flooding, so it’s fine that we come in and sort of help patch stuff up and put things back together here, but at the same time we have to figure out what’s causing this bizarre, really extreme weather.”

But the work at Prime Hook does offer ideas for how to mitigate the impact of climate change. Restoring Prime Hook’s coastal wetland improves the marshes' ability to withstand future storms while standing up to sea level rise.

Supervisory Wildlife Biologist Susan Guiteras points out the previous freshwater marshes were not unhealthy for the environment - they just aren’t the best option for maintaining the long-term integrity of the refuge.

“I do know there was definitely a time when a lot of people were concerned about the wetlands when they were seeing a lot of open water,” Guiteras says. “ And yes, naturally, a lot of the folks that used the wetlands in a very specific way such as to hunt waterfowl weren't happy with the change because they knew that that was going to result in a change of their activity. But a lot of folks just were concerned about the large amounts of open water and the loss of marsh in general.”

The restoration project at Prime Hook involved digging several miles of marsh drainage channels, then pumping back in 1 million cubic yards of sand. Then, perennial beach grasses, shrubs, and other vegetation were planted to hold it all in place. In the open water marsh areas, Guiteras says they did a lot of aerial seeding, and it was every seed for itself.

“If it was a mix of seeds, then whatever conditions a particular seed encountered, if that was the kind of salinity and water amount, everything that that plant liked, then it was going to germinate and if not well, too bad,” Guiteras says. “So that was kind of an easy way to give the plants a jumpstart.”

Dunes on the beach at Prime Hook..jpeg
Rachel Sawicki
Dunes on the beach at Prime Hook

Whether or not that jumpstart made a small or large impact on revegetation is unclear.

“A lot of the recovery has been from the edges,” Guiteras says. “So you have the salt marsh that was right along the edges sort of expanding into the interior. There's still a lot of open water but now you start to have these islands of vegetation and we see that they've been growing and expanding. So most of those plants are actually salt marsh species.”

With the salt water marshes restored, Prime Hook is welcoming some different varieties of wildlife. Among the more notable is the return of the Salt Marsh Sparrow, a bird Hastie says is in big trouble, and is close to being placed on the endangered species list.

“We're in a little bit of a race against time to try to proactively conserve areas like this and restore more areas like this,” Hastie says. “This is a prime example. And we're doing this in other areas up and down the coast so that we can try to avoid extinction of the species.”

And Guiteras says the switch to salt water marshes is not creating concerns for other species. There are still plenty of habitats for freshwater fowl like dabbling ducks and pintails to migrate to, like Bombay Hook in Smyrna. Guiteras says even when they saw those species declining at Prime Hook, they knew the population as a whole would not suffer.

“Our responsibility is really to the species at large,” Guiteras says. “ And so if you have trade-offs locally where one species isn't going to prefer the area, but other species that are experiencing more population-wide challenges are going to benefit, then that's considered a higher priority, a better benefit.”

Guiteras says the restoration also boosted horseshoe crab populations, a food source for migrating shorebirds, and that produced some results.

“But of course the big surprise, the pleasant surprise, on the beach were the Piping Plovers,” Guiteras says. “That's not a species that we were necessarily expecting because we're a little bit north of their usual breeding range. They are usually found on actual ocean front beaches, So to get them on our beach, which is technically part of the Delaware Bay, was a big surprise.”

Now, maintenance of the refuge is mostly self-sustaining in terms of vegetation and wildlife. But some additional dredging may be needed in some areas to help with tidal flow.

“So we do anticipate – whether or not we'll need to do any additional dredging we don't know – but if anything, there might be the need to dredge some of those smaller channels just to help keep them open,” Guiteras says. “That’s something that we would evaluate over time.”

Restoring the shoreline boosted the hotshot crab population, a food source for migrating shore birds..jpeg
Rachel Sawicki
Restoring the shoreline boosted the hotshot crab population, a food source for migrating shore birds

Out on the beach, managing vegetation is a delicate balance between making sure there is enough to keep the reconstructed dunes in place, but not so much that Piping Plovers, who like sparse vegetation, won’t find it suitable to nest.

There is no telling how Prime Hook would stand up against another storm like Sandy, but Guiteras says it has stood up against the small tests so far, including against a January 2016 winter storm that hit before the project was even finished.

“So far, so good,” Guiteras says. “Our shorelines I think are always going to be vulnerable to these storms. And we never really set out to do the impossible, we just wanted to give the shoreline the best possible chance to have a natural response and the natural resiliency that most of these coastal systems have, where even when they have breaches and overwashes, they're able to recover from that if they're healthy, and that was really our goal.”

Senator Carper hopes to see some of the lessons learned at Prime Hook applied in other places. To that end, he fought for an additional $125 million in the Inflation Reduction Act for coastal resiliency projects like this one.

But don't expect to see any of that funding in the First State. Because Prime Hook received such a large sum after Sandy and has already restored much of its shoreline, money from the Inflation Reduction Act is likely headed elsewhere -- where perhaps Prime Hook can serve as a prime example for how to deliver restoration that has a real impact.

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Rachel Sawicki is Delaware Public Media's New Castle County Reporter. They are non-binary and use they/them pronouns.