By Shane Godshall, Habitat Restoration Project Manager, American Littoral Society; and
Randi Rothmel, The Association of New Jersey Environmental Commissions (ANJEC) Project Director
Shared from ANJEC REPORT – Summer 2023 (Begins on Page 4)
The need to restore tidal salt marshes has been brought into sharp focus as we grapple with the realities of climate change. Their ability to sequester carbon and mitigate some impacts from storms and rising seas has prompted federal and State agencies, local municipalities, and various nonprofits to put a concerted effort into the restoration of New Jersey’s salt marshes.
Tidal salt marshes cover over 200,000 acres of New Jersey’s coastal landscape, providing vital habitat for wildlife, maintaining water quality and helping protect people from storm surge and flooding. A 2017 study concluded that NJ’s salt marshes prevented over $400 million in damages from Superstorm Sandy. Inland flooding can also be reduced by coastal ecosystems that provide resistance to the flow of water during a surge.
Over the last century, however, parts of New Jersey, such as Barnegat Bay, have lost more than 25 percent of their salt marshes due to infilling and development. The NJ Coastal Wetland Law, while limiting this loss, has not sufficiently protected the coastline. New NJ Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) coastal flood hazard area rules are anticipated as part of the Resilient Environment and Landscapes (REAL) initiative, under the NJ Protecting Against Climate Threats (NJPACT) program, to further protect the coastline.
Recognizing that a healthy ecosystem plays an important role in sustaining coastal communities, both people and wildlife, a NJ guidance document, “Building Ecological Solutions to Coastal Community Hazards,” was developed in 2017 by the National Wildlife Federation in collaboration with a consortium of nonprofit organizations. This guide challenges and empowers coastal communities to consider ecological solutions through approaches that work with nature towards coastal resiliency.
Working towards restoration
The State has implemented several marsh restoration projects that utilized dredge sediment from navigational channel maintenance. This process, known as beneficial use, has been quite successful at restoring marshes while leveraging the maintenance work the State is required to perform, especially along the back bays of the Atlantic Coast.
Along the shoreline of Delaware Bay in NJ’s rural southern counties, the erosion of salt marshes has been exacerbated by the history of marsh diking to farm salt hay and food crops. This process of building earthen dams to hold back the high tide has resulted in an unexpected loss of elevation as the underlying marshy peat layer has dried out and decomposed. As farms were abandoned, those dikes became compromised and tidal inundation resulted in erosion leaving behind degraded marsh and mudflats.
Coastal conservation nonprofits like the American Littoral Society have been working to identify practical, nature-based solutions to restore and protect salt marshes in New Jersey. The Littoral Society designed and built a one-and-a-half-acre pilot project that used coir (coconut fiber) logs to create a containment area for dredge sediment that would raise the marsh platform by two feet, taking it from a mudflat to a functioning low marsh. This project was implemented five years ago and has proved to be a viable solution for certain situations.
For areas with higher energy and accelerated erosion, the Littoral Society has been experimenting with hybrid breakwater structures in conjunction with living shoreline components. The first phases of a project in the mouth of the Maurice River have been implemented; a series of rock breakwaters and a rock revetment were constructed along the last remaining bit of salt marsh that protects the communities, businesses and infrastructure further upriver. The long-term goal of this project is the recovery of 400 acres of marsh by creating conditions where sediment can build up and marsh vegetation can regrow.
Environmental commissions and municipalities who are interested in protecting and restoring their tidal salt marshes can find some great information and tools online.
The New Jersey Bay Islands Restoration Planner is a mapping tool created by Barnegat Bay Partnership, Stockton University Coastal Research Center, The Nature Conservancy and US Fish and Wildlife Service. This tool can help decisionmakers with data needed to assess marsh islands in Barnegat Bay and develop restoration plans.
Partnership for the Delaware Estuary has produced several helpful documents to assist municipalities and landowners with understanding salt marsh restoration and the techniques used.
Restore America’s Estuaries has the Coastal Restoration Toolkit, a terrific resource for community members and local governments to learn about restoring their coastline. This toolkit goes beyond salt marshes, offering guidance on planning, permitting and funding restoration projects.
Protecting and restoring New Jersey’s salt marshes will provide unique and much needed habitat, sequester carbon, reduce the impact from storms and give a sense of place to the communities that occupy the coast. It is a worthy goal for many reasons, both tangible and intangible, and as the fight against climate change intensifies, salt marshes will be our first line of defense.