Pending court action holds up Prime Hook project

Work to repair dunes could begin in mid-September
August 17, 2011
Storms have opened three breaches along the Delaware Bay coastline allowing for the free flow of saltwater into Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge's freshwater marshes. SOURCE FILE PHOTO

Story Location:
Milton  Delaware  19968
United States

Work was supposed to begin this month, but another delay has halted repairs to the dunes in Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge, needed to keep saltwater out of freshwater marshes.

The public has had its say, and federal officials have given the project a green light. Now the fate of the project is in court.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials have agreed to delay the project until the week of Sept. 12 to allow more time for a thorough review and possible ruling on a lawsuit. Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and Delaware Audubon Society filed a complaint in federal court seeking an injunction to stop the project, aimed at reconstructing berms and dunes in the refuge’s Unit 2 impoundment.

Federal officials said the week of Sept. 12 is the next time that a tide cycle is conducive to conducting the work.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has determined, following an environmental assessment, that rebuilding the dunes would not significantly affect the environment and would not adversely affect endangered or threatened species or their habitats.

Under the proposal, sand would be scraped from washover areas to rebuild about 3,000 feet of dune line, and inlets south of Fowler Beach would be filled to stop overflow of saltwater into the freshwater refuge.

The report stresses the action is a short-term solution. “The preferred alternative provides a reasonable option for meeting the objective of reducing impacts of coastal flooding and reducing erosion for the short term while a long-term restoration and management plan, based upon increased availability of scientific information, is developed,” wrote Wendi Weber, acting regional director, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In addition, she wrote, the plan would allow refuge staff to manage a freshwater or brackish marsh for migratory waterfowl, as it has for more than two decades.

A series of nor’easters over the past two years damaged the dune line near Fowler Beach, breaching the dunes in several places. Saltwater intrusion has caused extensive damage to one freshwater impoundment and threatens another in the southern section of the refuge.

About 950 feet of dune is on refuge land, and about 2,000 feet is on private land connected to the refuge dunes. Under the plan, the state of Delaware has agreed to undertake the project. A Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control crew was in place to repair the dunes in May, but it was pulled off the job after one day because an environmental assessment had not been completed.

PEER is a national nonprofit alliance of local, state and federal scientists, law enforcement officers, land managers and other professionals dedicated to upholding environmental laws and values. The organization maintains the breaches are natural inlets, which act as safety valves for the beach ecosystem to adjust to sea-level rise, storm dynamics and other conditions, for the benefit of the entire beach island, back barrier marshes and all the wetland-dependent wildlife species.

In the scale of beach projects, this is a relatively small one. Once work begins, the project should take less than two weeks, said Tony Pratt, DNREC’s shoreline and waterway administrator.

DNREC will cover the cost of the project with Bond Bill money from the beach replenishment fund, Pratt said. DNREC crews, using state equipment, will do the work. Pratt said at this point, he could not estimate the cost of the project.