Feds approve Prime Hook plan

Work on details can now get underway
May 1, 2013

A final hurdle to repair Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge beach breaches has been cleared.

On April 29, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a final comprehensive conservation plan for the refuge, which will serve as a guide for managing the refuge for the next 15 years.

Included in the adopted plan, known as alternative B, is repair of the breaches at Fowler Beach. The breaches allow free flow of Delaware Bay saltwater into the refuge's marshes, and in particular the Unit 2 impoundment. The marsh was previously managed as a freshwater impoundment, and over the past four years, it has converted to open water. The protection provided by the marsh has been eroded – putting bay communities – such at Primehook Beach – in jeopardy of flooding during high tides and storms.

By filling in the breaches along the duneline, marsh restoration to a saltwater impoundment can begin in Unit 2, said Terri Edwards, Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman. “Marsh restoration is the priority,” she said.

Approval of the plan allows Fish and Wildlife staff and refuge management to start implementing details of the plan in the 50-year-old refuge. The first 100 acres of the refuge were purchased in 1963; the refuge now has more than 10,000 acres, including 4,000 acres of marsh impoundments.

The plan calls for one of the largest marsh restoration projects ever along the Atlantic coast. The Fish and Wildlife Service earlier this year contracted with Atkins Global to obtain information on repairing the breaches as a first phase in a larger project to restore marshes on the refuge.

Atkins Global has calculated that it will take 500,000 to 800,000 cubic yards of material to complete the first phase of the project. The firm's draft report is under review by Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Edwards said the final report will be completed soon and be available to the public.

As part of the same study, Atkins Global created a hydrological model to help evaluate specific marsh restoration actions. Now that the plan has been approved, staff will move ahead with design and further engineering studies for marsh restoration.

Fish and Wildlife Service staff will continue to work with DNREC and the Army Corps to identify sources of material for all phases of marsh restoration, Edwards said. Fish and Wildlife Service received emergency supplemental funding to repair the dune breach as part of marsh restoration, as a result of damage caused by Hurricane Sandy.

Under the plan, the Fish and Wildlife Service will convert former agricultural areas to a more suitable habitat for migratory birds, expand hunting and other wildlife-related recreational opportunities and use less pesticide to control adult mosquitos unless there’s a documented human disease threat.

It's estimated it will cost $20 million to repair Hurricane Sandy damage in the refuge. Congress designated $68.2 million for repairs to 25 refuges in the Mid-Atlantic region; officials are seeking other funds specifically for Prime Hook refuge.

“Winter storms continue to cause extensive flooding at Prime Hook. By restoring Unit II to a healthy and resilient salt marsh, we would create an environment that is more resilient to the influence of coastal storms. We do not expect that the project would eliminate all future flooding of Primehook Beach community or its access roads,” Edwards said.

DNREC has contracted with Atkins Global and another engineering firm to identify short-term solutions for community protection and flood mitigation.

The sequester has affected some of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife's work, including a hiring freeze. However, Edwards said, the agency has received an exemption to fill the vacant refuge manager position at Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge.

In a related matter, during an April 30 press conference, federal and state officials announced the Army Corps will receive $30 million in federal Disaster Relief Appropriations Act funding to restore Delaware beaches to their original design profiles prior to Hurricane Sandy. Nearly 2 million cubic yards of sand will be pumped onto the beaches along Delaware's coastline from Fenwick Island to Lewes.

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