Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge's final comprehensive conservation plan calls for closing a series of breaches at Fowler Beach, a major change from the draft plan spurred by widespread public demands to repair the dune line.
Five years after it was supposed to be completed, the final plan, designed to guide the future of the refuge for the next 15 years, was released Dec. 28.
Based on public comments, U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials who developed the plan have modified the agency's preferred alternative – one of three options – to address serious degradation of refuge marshes. The preferred alternative now clarifies that breach repair is an important first step in marsh restoration as outlined in the plan, said Thomas Bonetti, the Northeast region refuge planning team leader.
The breaches at Fowler Beach – opened and then widened by storms over the past five years – have allowed the free flow of saltwater from Delaware Bay into previously freshwater marshes, destroying grasses and trees that once provided protection for Primehook Beach, a community that borders the refuge. The breaches now extend along a 4,000-foot section of the coastline just north of Primehook Beach.
“We had many comments on the breaches and flooding,” Bonetti said. “The final CCP makes it clearer that breach repair is an important first step.”
Under the preferred alternative, officials would manage the refuge to mimic natural processes by restoring all four impoundments to saltwater marsh, doing away with freshwater marsh. Just how the plan will be implemented depends on staff and funding, Bonetti said.
Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge, located along the Delaware Bay, is made up of four 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.
Because of the breaches, saltwater has caused extensive damage to the Unit 2 freshwater impoundment, and that damage is extending into Unit 3. Units 1 and 4 are already saltwater marsh.
Prime Hook's comprehensive conservation plan and environmental impact statement are now under a 30-day review by state and federal agencies and those who offered comments to ensure U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials addressed their concerns.
At the end of the review period, Regional Director Wendi Weber will determine if the plan complies with the National Environmental Policy Act followed by a record of decision and final publication. Only then can the plan be implemented.
In the interim, Bonetti said, officials are negotiating with engineering firms to determine the best design and how much material would be needed to fill the breaches and restore the marsh.
Final publication of the plan has been held up by changing environmental conditions within the refuge as well as litigation over farming on refuge lands and a proposed dune repair project in 2011.
The plan is available at fws.gov/northeast/primehook/.
Residents say emergency repairs needed
Ask any Primehook Beach resident and they will tell you quickly what state and federal officials should have at the top of their New Year's resolutions list: fill the breaches at Fowler Beach.
Another year has passed and little has been done to ease the flooding issues for those who live on the marsh side of Primehook Beach.
However, the coming year could see some movement. Gov. Jack Markell has asked the federal government for $20 million to repair damage to Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge as the result of Hurricane Sandy.
Residents say time is running short, including Rick Allan who has been at the forefront of the community's effort to get public officials to take action.
Because of recent storms – including Hurricane Sandy – Allan said the community is set up for disaster at the beginning of the winter storm season. “We can't run and hide anymore,” he said.
In a recent letter to state officials, Allan laid out a plan for fixing the breaches called Operation Prime Hook, which would assemble the logistical and management assets of the National Guard, Dover Air Force Base, DEMA and FEMA in collaboration with the Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Delaware Department of Transportation and Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control.
Allan's solution includes the placement of huge sandbags to fill in the breaches at Fowler Beach and secure portions of Prime Hook Road that are at most risk.
Allan said this type of emergency response technique was used along the Mississippi River, after Hurricane Katrina and to protect Gulf Coast wetlands following the BP oil spill. “There are countless examples from all over the country where helicopters flown by National Guard or other service personnel have delivered this protection quickly and with successful outcomes,” he said.
“Give us some hope, give us some protection, give us a future,” Allan wrote in a letter to Gov. Jack Markell. “If Prime Hook goes, so will all the bay communities. It's not a very pretty thought but it is a very real possibility.”