Stratford Point — Three huge earth-movers are lined up end-to-end across the beach here. Bucket brigade style, they are handing off bell-shaped 1,500-pound concrete objects pocked with Swiss-cheese-style holes. They are placing them in two parallel lines along the mucky sand just above the low-tide line.
These bells are Reef Balls – part of a first-for-Connecticut project aimed at stemming the rampant erosion on a 28-acre spit of land that borders Long Island Sound on one side and the Housatonic River on the other. And while the project will be watched carefully for potential applications elsewhere on the Connecticut coast, there’s one big problem.
No one is sure it will actually work.
“It’s experimental,” said Jennifer Mattei, a biology professor who specializes in restoration ecology and population ecology at Sacred Heart University, one of several partners on the project. “We don’t know if it’s going to work. I can think about it and I can hypothesize — wouldn’t it be great if it did all these things — but we actually don’t know.”
Mattei wants it to help rectify a problem that was essentially man-made. From 1926 to 1986, Stratford Point was home to the Remington Gun Club, owned in part or wholly by DuPont and now owned by DuPont subsidiary Sporting Goods Properties. It is managed under a conservation easement by the Connecticut Audubon Society. Both are partners in the project.
In 2000, the then-Department of Environmental Protection ordered DuPont to clean up the large amount of lead shot, which is environmentally dangerous, that littered the property. To do that, DuPont had to remove the salt marsh that covered about 12 acres of intertidal zone between the land and the low tide point on the river side.
That’s when the trouble started.
While the required amount of lead shot was removed – there’s still some in there – what became apparent was something coastal geologists have always known: salt marshes protect land from flooding and erosion, and without them, you’re going to have both.
So replanting the marsh turned into several exercises in futility. “The first time they tried to put it back they had a storm and then they had geese eat the rest of it,” Mattei said. “And the whole thing failed.”
By the time Tropical Storm Irene and the October snowstorm in 2011 ended, 100 feet of beach had eroded. Mattei, who is also affiliated with CT Audubon, helped construct dunes fortified with synthetic tubing called Geotubes, but a nor’easter unearthed them. The dunes were replanted only to be torn up again by storm Sandy, after which large plastic bags of sand were packed in front for protection until a better solution could be found. Compounding the problem was that each time a storm came through, the remaining lead shot would pool on the beach.
The idea of Reef Balls surfaced as protection to allow the marsh to re-establish itself, which would in turn help keep the beach from eroding, which in turn would help the buffer the reef.
“I guess the number of failures is kind of what’s driving my opinion about it,” said Mattei, who also said one of the key lessons learned from those failures is the need for a holistic approach. You can’t just repair the dune or replant wetlands or just put in a reef. All the natural components need to connect.
The Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, which provided the permits for the project, has an eye on that connectivity too. Brian Thompson, DEEP’s director of Long Island Sound Programs, saw it as a chance to try something his office has wanted to do for a few years – create a living shoreline.
Living shorelines are natural shoreline management systems to handle water, wind and other environmental impacts without using hard structures like seawalls, which can cause as many erosion problems as they solve. Legislation in 2012 provided for living shoreline pilot projects, but no money to do them.
“This looks like a really good opportunity to do a project on relatively small scale that could be a pilot or a demonstration project for how a living shoreline might be effective,” Thompson said, though he could not say what specific areas of the shoreline might benefit. “Where they’re going to work depends on a lot of factors. It depends on their exposure and wave energy and prevailing wind directions and tidal range. Most likely they will work better in areas where there is a smaller tidal range.”
The plan in Stratford is for 150 feet of Reef Balls – 64 of them in two rows – about 60 feet offshore. Sediment would build up around them allowing the remaining lead shot to sink once and for all. Mattei also believes that like some Reef Ball projects, the installation could form an oyster reef.
But that has been controversial. During permitting, Connecticut’s Bureau of Aquaculture, which operates through the Department of Agriculture, expressed concern that seed oyster would be brought in from out-of-state and the potential for disease with it. Even with assurances that that wouldn’t happen, Bureau Chief Dave Carey remains skeptical that a reef that short could build into one that supports oysters given the currents in the Housatonic.
“The reef that would build would break up every year,” he said. “It’s just the nature of the action of the water and the gravel bottom. It grinds and cleans the oysters, breaks them up so we don’t ever really form a reef.
“I don’t think it’s going to work. But we’re going to get information from it that’s going to tell us how to build it to make it work.”
Even Chesapeake Bay, known for its oysters and now home to a number of Reef Ball Projects, has had mixed results with Reef Ball-based oysters. “We consider oysters a secondary thing,” said Erik Zlokovitz, Maryland’s artificial reef coordinator. “It’s mainly habitat and fishing.”
Carey is not the only one with reservations about the Connecticut project. Another is Todd Barber, the chairman and founder of the non-profit Reef Ball Foundation and the inventor with his father of Reef Balls more than 20 years ago.
“It’s not a typical Reef Ball project,” he said.
Underwater habitat development is what’s typical among the half-million reef balls deployed in 7,500 projects across 70 countries. The balls come in many sizes and shapes and range in price from $80 to $300 apiece. Stratford’s were more expensive than they might have been because they were manufactured at Reef Ball’s Florida plant and then shipped to Connecticut. Most projects produce the balls on site, cutting their cost significantly.
The overall Stratford project cost is unclear. Grants and matching funds so far have totaled more than $300,000. But DuPont has declined to reveal the funding it supplied for the balls, shipping and the design and construction.
The holes in the balls let water through and promote constant flushing to help keep animals and vegetation alive, which is their primary purpose. Some balls double for erosion prevention, but few, if any, are primarily for that purpose like Connecticut’s.
The Stratford design was done by outside engineers hired by DuPont, not by Reef Ball, which is usually the case. Typically Reef Balls are placed well underwater, tightly together in at least three rows. Stratford’s are loosely packed in only two rows. The reef is unusually shallow and will be completely exposed twice a day at low tide. That has Barber and others not only doubtful that there will be much fish or shellfish development, but also worried that it will suffer from problems that have plagued other northern climate attempts – freezing.
“The challenge is they are now exposed to the air and in the north we may have ice,” he said. “I’m not so sure what will happen.”
A Reef Ball project to grow mussels in a shallow bay in Rhode Island failed for that reason, Barber said. A deeper one to enhance fish habitat is now planned for three locations in upper Narragansett Bay. And a Newfoundland project failed when icebergs literally dislodged the balls and dragged them across the ocean bottom.
That said, Barber thinks there’s a good chance the Stratford project will stop some erosion, even if it’s just a small section.
But Mattei is optimistic. Two Reef Balls tested on the bottom for a couple of months didn’t sink as some feared they would. And when they were pulled up, Mattei found evidence of sedimentation already forming. Even so, she’s had to promise to pull the reef out if anything goes horribly wrong.
“We may need to go longer. It may only block erosion right behind the reef. We’ll get a lot answers,” she said. “It’s a pretty big experiment. But it’s exciting.”