The wide breaches in the dunes at Fowler's Beach will be repaired. The question is how much sand will it take to fill the breaches in Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge as part of a broader marsh restoration project?
On March 14, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service provided an answer by announcing it would require as much as 800,000 cubic yards of sand, according to preliminary engineering estimates. But, for the restoration project to proceed, the regional director must approve the refuge's comprehensive conservation plan, said spokeswoman Terri Edwards.
Due to a series of nor'easters and two hurricanes off the coast over the past six years, the breaches at Fowler Beach have widened from 700 feet to 4,000 feet.
Saltwater flows through the breaches from the Delaware Bay into the refuge's marshes causing serious damage to what were freshwater marsh grasses and trees. Much of the protection the marsh once offered for nearby Primehook Beach is gone. Persistent flooding has caused property damage and forced several extended closings of Prime Hook Road, the community's main access.
The most recent nor'easter was one of the worst so far for Primehook Beach residents, who live just south of the breaches. The storm created a series of extreme high tides, flooding Prime Hook Road flooding it and closing it for a week, the longest period so far since the overwash of the beach began.
Residents were forced to use Back Bay Cove Road, a secondary private access, in Broadkill Beach. Through an agreement reached with the homeowners' association, the state pays $500 per day for Primehook Beach residents to use the private road when the main access is flooded.
Delaware Department of Transportation crews started repairing Prime Hook Road as soon as it was open.
Cost will determine timetable
Residents have been told a restoration plan would be in place before the end of the year, with work starting in 2014, said Primehook Beach resident John Chirtea.
Although that still seems a long way off, for Primehook Beach residents it's good news that the project is finally moving forward. Chirtea said residents have been unanimous in their message. “It's always been to fill the breaches,” he said. Now, he said, it appears state and federal officials are finally starting to get that message.
To some, the project is too late. Claudine Bodin, who has lived in Primehook Beach for 10 years, said it's ironic the refuge is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2013. “A funeral seems more appropriate,” she said. “At least my family, friends and neighbors saw and experienced the splendor of Primehook before it was allowed to be swallowed by the Delaware Bay – that is something no one will ever have the opportunity to experience again.”
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service announced Feb. 1 that Congress has allocated $68.2 million to make repairs to 25 refuges on the East Coast damaged by Hurricane Sandy.
The estimated cost to make repairs at Prime Hook refuge is $20 million. Edwards said the Fish & Wildlife Service would continue to work with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control to determine sand sources for beach restoration as well as marsh restoration.
Now that officials have an estimate how much sand is required, the cost can be determined. The eventual cost – and the availability of funds– will determine how officials will proceed with the project. The top priority is to restore the dunes and beach, Fish & Wildlife officials said.
“But the next step is conservation plan approval. The preferred alternative will not be fully considered until it's approved,” Edwards said.
First step requires breach repair
Under the refuge's proposed conservation plan, the most seriously affected marsh – known as Unit 2 – would be restored as a saltwater marsh. Once a freshwater marsh, the compound has been inundated with saltwater from the Delaware Bay and has been converted to open water.
The Fish & Wildlife plan, as highlighted on the Prime Hook refuge website, comprises five steps to restore the marsh and stop the flow of saltwater onto nearby lands.
Step 1: Sand berms would be built at the breaches at Fowler Beach to slow wave action and provide some sand to wash into the marsh.
Step 2: Containment cells would be built in open water and sediment would be pumped into the cells to make sure the sediment does not wash back into the bay. The sand and silt would be used to build back the elevation of the marsh.
Step 3: While some marsh grasses would grow back naturally, volunteers would plant additional grasses.
Step 4: For restoration to work, the plan calls for improved drainage in Unit 1 and Unit 2. Slaughter Creek, which historically flowed to the bay, would need to be restored to again reach the bay.
Step 5: Old drainage ditches that allow saltwater to flow onto farmlands will be assessed. Some ditches might be plugged; flood gates could be used for others in a detailed plan to keep saltwater out of uplands areas near the refuge.
A beach replenishment project is scheduled to begin this fall in Broadkill Beach, just south of Primehook Beach. Spoils from the Delaware Bay channel deepening project will provide material for that project. “There should be more than enough, so the best case scenario would be that they divert some up this way,” Chirtea said.
But that sand would have to bypass Primehook Beach, a private beach that is not eligible for tax-funded beach replenishment. Officials are currently in the process of obtaining easements from residents who live along the Primehook Beach shoreline. Officials said if 100 percent of the residents provide easements, Primehook Beach would become a public beach and be eligible for replenishment.
Residents have scheduled a meeting with Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control Deputy Secretary David Small on Saturday, March 23, to discuss the easement process.