The state’s wetlands, important for the protection of all life, have been severely degraded over the years. Can they recover? New partnerships may slow their decline—if Mother Nature doesn’t do them in first
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Dirtier water for us, and nothing for the weakfish to eat—or for about 130 species of finfish, the second-largest collection of migrating shorebirds in the Western Hemisphere, about a half-million waterfowl, and the clams, oysters and crabs they eat. And don’t forget: The estuary is home to the world’s largest population of horseshoe crabs.
Fortunately, several groups are working together to preserve and restore our wetlands. The Delaware Wetlands Conservation Strategy, an effort by DNREC, other state agencies and partners, outlines six goals for protecting wetlands. Chief among them is sharing information and coordinating protection and restoration efforts.
“I know the joke about committees and three-humped camels,” Tudor says. “But in our case, collaboration has worked well.”
Tudor cites a committee formed by the four states that control the Delaware Estuary—New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware—to find ways of mitigating flooding in the estuary north of Trenton. Working from various flood models, it recently coordinated a release of 15 reservoirs to significantly reduce flood potential.
More of that kind of cooperation is needed to maintain the balance. The Partnership for the Delaware Estuary, a regional non-profit based in Wilmington, is responsible for the 52 percent of the Delaware River Basin below Trenton. Danielle Kreeger, science director for the partnership, says satellite imagery shows a large degree of erosion on the seaward edge of wetlands, which has led to conversion of interior areas to open water.
“While current sediment flow may be OK for natural changes, it is not keeping pace with sea-level rise,” Kreeger says. “Out here, we’re seeing a lot of ponding where grassy wetlands use to be. It’s getting quite scary.
“Sea level rise increments outstrip marsh expansion,” she says. “Throw in the current level of degradation to the marsh we have left, and all it takes is one storm to push the marsh past sustainability and toward collapse.”
Kreeger calls for increasing natural breakwaters, such as oyster reefs, to reduce the force of waves slapping the marsh’s shoreline. Though mud—sediment flow from the river—is essential to preserving tidal marshes, another kind of maintenance and expansion plan is needed for non-tidal freshwater inland marshes.
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