Monday, May 19, 2014

Sea level rise-A timely topic

by Beth Sullivan
In the last weeks we have had ample opportunity to read about the impacts of climate change and sea level rise. On Sunday, May 11, Judy Benson wrote an excellent , detailed, piece on the topic in the New London Day. Shoreline towns all up and down the Eastern seaboard are addressing issues that have come to the fore since Super Storm Sandy. Here in Connecticut , a number of towns along our shoreline have already begun, or in some cases, completed plans to address these changes and set long term goals on how the town, its infrastructure and its coastal properties can best prepare to deal with the effects of these changes.

A healthy marsh is lush with adaptive native grasses.
Avalonia owns and manages several coastal properties, most in Stonington. As stewards, over the years, we have noticed these changes first hand. Literally hunks of peat banks that form the marsh edges are falling off into the water as higher waves and tides batter them. The marshes themselves stay wetter longer, which is actually a detriment to the plants and animals that rely on the tidal cycles of highs and lows, wets and dries, to survive. Areas of healthy marsh are becoming wastelands, of sorts. There are spreading “pannes” of brown slick mud where nothing can grow but host mosquito larvae. The healthy marsh grasses are being replaced in many areas by other plants that tolerate more water and salt. As the grasses change, so does the wildlife that depends on them. Mussel banks fall into the water; crabs that burrow along the marsh edges are flooded too often. Birds are displaced, and their nests fail with the rising waters.
Ribbed mussels that are embedded in the bank help support the marsh edge.
In one area we have been able to witness changes happening, literally, before our eyes. Over the last year we have reported on Dodge Paddock and Beal Preserve, at the end of Wall Street in Stonington Borough. Those who have lived in the area can remember the not too distant past when the land was dry enough to play ball on. The grasses were mown to be like a lawn. There was a small brackish pond that supported native plants and wildlife.
A view of the Paddock in May 2006.
Over the last decade, these residents have witnessed the changes brought by higher water levels and stronger storms. As water tables rise, it is not just the salt water causing the problem, but fresh water running off into the area and not draining away. This encouraged the growth of the non-native and invasive Phragmites. These aggressive plants rapidly spread, crowded out other native plants and degraded the habitat so very little else could. The wetter land has made it impossible to mow, compounding the problem. Super Storm Sandy pretty much topped it off, destruction and inundation and debris impacted the entire area.
In 2014 the area is degraded and flooded.

Damage at the marsh edge shows bare mud, few plants, and dying mussels.

As tides become higher, waves become more forceful and erosion increases.
After over a year of working and collaborating with DEEP and state agencies, we are hopefully seeing not only a light at the end of the tunnel, but possibly a rainbow as well. The Phragmites have been nearly eradicated. The DEEP has continued their efforts to correct the drainage and have re-dug a channel to direct the standing water out of the pond. Work will continue to open up drainage flows farther west up into the Beal Preserve. There are plans in place to make the drainage channel more permanent and easier to maintain, and they will grade and even out the disturbed landscape when they are done.
Monoculture of Phragmites had begun to dominate a large area.

The drainage channel has been widened.
We, Avalonia, are beginning an amazing collaboration: a team made up of experts in areas of coastal restoration, landscape design and adaptive coastal plantings and an experienced grant writing team. Together, we are planning a project here to not only restore the habitat, but make it better, make it more adaptive in the face of future storms and flooding events. The area will never be as it was, historically. Mother Nature has seen to that.
The Borough of Stonington has a proactive leader. The Borough Warden has begun a discussion with other experts in the area of coastal resiliency planning . We all need to raise our voices to ask our leaders, all along the shore, to begin formal planning so that all areas, not just treasured open spaces, can benefit from teamwork and planning for the future.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan and Jeff Callahan.

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