State officials: Close Prime Hook breaches

Feds mull comments on refuge conservation plan
A small breach allows tidal flow of Delaware Bay water into Unit I, which is an established salt marsh. About a mile of dunes has been washed away by storms and high tides. BY RON MACARTHUR
September 7, 2012

The comment period on the draft comprehensive conservation plan for Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge ended last week.

Now, the process of sifting through the comments begins, and it appears U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials will have plenty of reading material. Most of what they read from bay community residents will contain three words: Close the breaches.

A series of comments from state agencies filed just before the deadline from Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, Delaware Department of Transportation, Department of Agriculture and Delaware Mosquito Control Section officials calls for closing the breaches.

Among the state recommendations is the following: “To limit flooding of coastal communities and mitigate effects on adjacent agricultural land, the service should pursue prompt closing of the breaches in Unit II and preserve them as closed until a functioning, self-sustaining tidal marsh can be established in Unit II, and consider marsh restoration options for Unit III that will provide quality and diverse habitat.”

Contained within the comments from state officials is a commitment to contribute to a solution to reach the goal of closing the breaches. “We will continue to work with the Corps of Engineers and the service to evaluate options, including the use of state resources to close the breach at Fowler Beach,” state officials said. “Stabilizing the dunes and closing the breaches is a crucial first step not only to habitat restoration but other constructed and natural assets in the area.”

State officials said without stabilization, there is a constant threat to roads in the area, particularly access roads to Prime Hook and Broadkill beaches.

State officials said they would continue to work with federal officials to develop restoration plans for Units II and III including identification of suitable sources of fill material – including dredged material – that can be deposited in the interior of the impoundments, a key component of a restoration effort.

Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge, located north of Lewes along the Delaware Bay, is made up of three impoundments called units. Eighty percent of the 10,133-acre refuge is tidal and freshwater wetlands, and 20 percent consists of upland habitats. The refuge was established in 1963 primarily to preserve coastal wetlands as wintering and breeding habitat for migratory waterfowl.

Since 2009, several breaches in the dune line have allowed the free flow of saltwater into refuge marshes. Saltwater has caused extensive damage to the Unit II freshwater impoundment, and that damage is extending into Unit III. Refuge officials have put off any work until after the conservation plan is adopted, which could occur by the end of the year.

The federal plan offers three alternatives: Option A would maintain status quo, continuing current management practices; Option B – the preferred alternative – would manage the refuge to mimic natural processes by restoring all four impoundments to salt marsh, doing away with freshwater marsh; and Option C would return the refuge to the way it was managed early in the last decade by maintaining artificial freshwater impoundments behind a restored dune line along Delaware Bay.

Under the preferred alternative, the refuge's three impoundments would be restored to saltwater marsh possibly dredged material; the number of hunting days on the refuge would be increased and permanent hunting structures such as deer stands and duck blinds would be phased out; and farming would not occur within the refuge with restoration of previously farmed land to open fields and native forest. Under the alternative, it's possible that some dune restoration would be required.

State officials propose hybrid alternative

State officials rejected all three options and instead proposed a hybrid combining elements of the options into a fourth option “keeping the best traditions of the past that have been huge successes and discard the obsolete in favor of more prudent measures.”

The hybrid alternative would include maintenance management of the existing impoundments and restoration of the dunes, expansion of hunting to include a limited number of deer stands and duck blinds as well as maintaining the historic-use levels – days and hours – of hunting, predator control to promote bird species of concern and maintaining a smaller scale of farming to maintain habitat diversity and allow for wetlands expansion associated with anticipated sea-level rise.

Also included in the comments is a three-page petition signed by nearly 1,000 people. The petition echoes many of the same recommendations provided by state officials with the overriding theme of filling in the breaches with whatever means it takes. “This means wood piling, metal sheet piling, jersey barriers, stone, sand, or a combination of all of that; natural or unnatural,” the petition states.

Public comments focus on breaches

Cindy Miller said from the time the refuge was formed in 1963, residents of nearby bay towns were give assurances that the dune line between the refuge's marshes and the Delaware Bay would be maintained. Miller is chairperson of the Primehook Beach Organization.

During a hearing at Cape Henlopen High School, Jim Bailey of Broadkill Beach read a 1963 press release from the Department of Interior. “With the ever-increasing shrinkage of public access to our East Coast beaches, the citizens of Delaware can be assured that the beaches within the Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge will be preserved for the benefit of present and future generations,” the press release noted.

Bailey said proper water management was critical to protect residents in the bay communities. “Your premier obligation is to protect the citizens,” he told federal officials.

Miller said the current breaches, originally very small, are now estimated to be nearly a mile long and have allowed the destruction of more than 4,000 acres of refuge marsh and uplands.

“Additionally, thousands of trees have been killed, residential and agricultural land to the south and west has been ruined, and entire communities to the east remain in daily peril,” Miller said.

“Kicking the can down the road management policy for a few more years while the Delaware Bay has free play in our neighborhoods and with our lives does not pass muster,” said Richard Allan, vice chairman of the Primehook Beach Organization.

Allan read an eight-page report into the record during the hearing at Cape Henlopen High School. “We urge the service to forge a responsible preferred alternative that takes into account the conditions on the ground and the day-to-day threat of flooding and inundation from the breaches to Primehook Beach residents and infrastructure from the refuge impoundments – one that affords a reasonable plan for protection of life, property and general wellbeing,” he said.

Allan said the refuge owns and manages an open front door on the shoreline because of breaches and overwashes that have created a counterpart open back door where bay waters flow into adjacent communities.

“What we all want is the dunes back. The dunes can be replaced; you can find the money,” said Otis Clifton, who lives near the refuge.