Years of drastic change at Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge
Following Hurricane Sandy in October 2012, the breaches cover an area from Fowler Beach Road to just north of Primehook Beach. BY RON MACARTHUR
November 22, 2013

Although the wheels of change were in place earlier, storms in 2008 and 2009 started drastic ecological changes in Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge. In a series of domino-like events, storms breached the protective Fowler Beach dunes, and tidal saltwater from Delaware Bay flowed in, decimating refuge marshes, flooding nearby communities and putting access roads at risk.

In a very short time, the once-thriving freshwater Unit 2 marsh impoundment was unrecognizable; submerged by saltwater. Federal officials say up to 4,000 acres of marsh in the 10,000-acre refuge has been destroyed by saltwater intrusion.

Permitting issues, a lawsuit and a delayed refuge comprehensive conservation plan played into the natural events. It took five years for federal officials to come up with a plan that calls for rebuilding the beach and dunes and restoring Unit 2 and Unit 3 to saltwater marsh systems. Now, federal officials have nearly $40 million at their disposal to restore the refuge.

The following dates offer a snapshot of critical events over the past six years at the refuge.

2008: A year of storms

May 12-13: Storm opens large breach in the duneline protecting Prime Hook refuge marshes.

2009: The breaches widen

Feb. 5: DNREC denies permits for Primehook Beach resident to scrape sand to rebuild dunes.

2010: Talk about sea-level rise

March: Scientists say by 2100 sea-level rise will flood at least 50 percent of Prime Hook's marshes.

May: Federal officials block a DNREC plan to repair the breaches.

2011: Dune repair proceeds but fails

May 9: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service recognizes rapid changes in the refuge and authorizes a more complex environmental assessment is required for the comprehensive conservation plan.

Aug. 17: Court action holds up a plan to repair Fowler Beach dunes until September.

Aug. 27: Hurricane Irene passes offshore and widens the breaches; flooding hits bay communities and forces closure of Prime Hook Road for six days. DelDOT crews are called in to rebuild sections of the road.

Sept. 7: DNREC delays work to repair dunes citing sand washed away during Irene. DNREC officials say at least 80 percent of sand was washed away.

Sept. 16: DNREC proceeds with dune repair work.

Oct. 11-12: Four days after work is completed an overwash opens breaches again.

Oct. 28-30: Prime Hook Road closed due to flooding.

2012: Public says fill the breaches, stop the flooding

Jan. 4: Top regional wetlands scientists tour Prime Hook refuge.

Jan. 15: Fish & Wildlife Service releases conservation plan draft calling for restoring Unit 2 as a saltwater marsh as its preferred alternative.

March 6: A nor'easter forces the closure of Prime Hook Road, additional flooding occurs.

June 7: First public comprehensive conservation plan meeting takes place in Milford; plan is due by the end of the year. Five more hearings are to follow.

Aug. 14: Using federal highway funds, DelDOT announces $640,000 project to repair/replace culverts under Prime Hook Road.

Sept. 7: Public comment period on the CCP ends with bay communities and local elected officials demanding filling in the breaches.

Oct. 29, 30: Storm surge from powerful Hurricane Sandy causes more erosion and floods sections of Primehook Beach and nearby Broadkill Beach. Breaches at Fowler Beach estimated to stretch along a 3,500-foot section. Prime Hook Road is closed until Nov. 3.

Nov. 7: Yet another nor'easter pounds the coast, closing Prime Hook Road.

Nov. 28: The Markell Administration requests $20 million in federal disaster relief funds for the refuge; the amount is later allocated to the refuge.

2013: Federal officials release components of plan

Feb. 1: Experts paint a bleak picture for Prime Hook refuge during the Delaware Estuary Environmental Summit.

Feb. 1: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service announces $68.2 million in federal aid is available to repair Hurricane Sandy damage in affected refuges on East Coast. The estimated cost for repairs in Prime Hook refuge is $20 million.

March 14: Engineers say it will take about 800,000 cubic yards of sand to repair Fowler Beach dunes. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service details possible plan to rebuild refuge's marshes. Final plan awaits approval of regional manager.

April 29: Federal officials approve the long-awaited refuge comprehensive conservation plan, which will guide refuge management for the next 15 years. Included in the plan is the preferred alternative to fill the breaches and rebuild a saltwater marsh system.

June 25: Consultant Atkins Global releases 118-page report outlining alternatives for repairing the beachfront and repairing damaged marshes.

Oct. 24: U.S. Department of the Interior awards $19.8 to refuge for marsh restoration for a total of nearly $40 million to restore the refuge.

Nov. 1: For the first time, a project timeline is released by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Work on Phase 1 of beach repair is expected to begin in the fall of 2014.

Nov. 13: Fish & Wildlife Service has a public workshop on a plan to fill the breaches and rebuild a saltwater marsh system in Unit 2 and Unit 3.