Climate change has arrived in Connecticut in the form of coastal flooding. To keep the water at bay, environmental officials are trying to increase the state’s salt marshes.
WSHU’s Ebong Udoma spoke with CT Mirror’s Jan Ellen Spiegel to discuss her article, “With CT shoreline flooding rising, officials turn to natural mitigation,” as part of the collaborative podcast Long Story Short.
WSHU: Hello, Jan. You write in your article about some natural barriers that we have to subdue flooding on the coastline. And you paid particular attention to a situation in Guilford on the Long Island Sound. Could you tell us about that?
JES: Guilford kind of mirrors lots of areas on the shoreline of Connecticut along Long Island Sound, in that it is an older area, it’s been built up for a century or more and there’s a lot of development — there are houses, there are roads, there is all kinds of infrastructure. And in doing that, over time, various communities have essentially removed or somehow hampered some of the natural barriers that are there, that help water that would be coming up from Long Island Sound or down the rivers be dealt with in a more natural way. That’s a very broad scope of this.
In Guilford in particular, there is an area where the West River comes down and empties into the Long Island Sound. And there’s a spit of land that faces the river and also faces Long Island Sound. And over time, as sea levels have risen, as there have been more and more storms and this piece of land has been battered very hard and it’s eroded and it’s cut into the natural remediation that’s there, which is salt marsh. Salt marsh is one of the best things shoreline areas have for dealing with rising waters, storms and any other manner of water that’s going to hit it. Salt marsh is often described as nature’s sponge — it absorbs water. So if a storm comes in, or rivers come down, or sea level rises, that water can get absorbed by the salt marsh and keep it from flooding what’s on the other side.
WSHU: What is the Chittenden area plan that you talk about here?
JES: Okay, the Chittenden area is really named for a park that’s there. What’s happened there is what’s happened in other places. Salt marsh, when it fills with water, naturally left to its own devices, moves if it gets too filled with water, too filled with whatever kind of flooding is there. It moves landward. The problem you run into is when something is keeping it from moving: a house, a building or road, a bridge, some sort of development that keeps it from moving. So instead of moving further inland, where it can absorb more water more easily, it just erodes. And that’s what’s happened there. If you look at some mapping over time, and we’ve found renderings that go back to the 1800s and photographs that go into the 2000s, you can literally see that chunk of land just being eaten away by water, which exposes the houses and the roads and everything else on the other side to more flooding. A lot of that is salt marsh, and houses have been built right into the salt marsh. And that’s the problem.
WSHU: If the salt marsh, which is a tidal marsh, is eroded, then the houses that have been built will now be vulnerable to flooding.
JES: Yes, that’s part of it. And if you’re looking at a pristine area now, I think what shoreline engineers and communities would normally do is say, “Hey, we’re not going to fill in the salt marsh anymore because this is crazy. It’s causing all kinds of flooding if we do that.” But this area has been built up for so long that really you’re sort of stuck with what you have and now you have to work with it. So what part of the plan is there — I use the term plan loosely — what they think is going to be the plan is, the community has been working with one of the environmental advocacy groups, mainly Save the Sound, to come up with a plan for restoring that salt marsh so the houses and roads on the other side which have been there forever don’t flood. This plan was actually first proposed probably 10 years ago and was never acted on. The point is to get the salt marsh to replenish itself.
What they think they’d like to do is essentially put some underwater rock structures called sills into Long Island Sound. They’re very loose rock structures so water can flow through them, but they kind of act as a brake on the water so it won’t erode as much, and then hopefully be able to plant additional marsh grass on the land side that will rebuild over time. There’s a little bit of that going on right now in a park area that’s adjacent to it to hopefully start to help the area. But this idea of restoring salt marsh is not uncommon on shorelines, especially on the east coast of the U.S. right now. People are looking at the kind of development that was done in coastal areas over decades, centuries now, that is now in harm’s way because of rising sea levels and more storms and more intense storms that are just eroding what’s there and the marsh has nowhere to go, it can’t absorb what’s left at the marsh, can’t absorb all the water it might need to absorb during the storm. As a result, anything on the other side of the marsh is going to flood and we are seeing this, you know, as I’m sure you’re aware, up and down the coast of the U.S.
WSHU: Well, something that I’m quite familiar with is Great Meadows Marsh, which is in Stratford. What’s happening with that? I mean, there was a lot of fanfare about 20 years ago, maybe 30 years ago now about preserving that. That’s right next to the Sikorsky airport in Bridgeport, on the Bridgeport Stratford line. What’s going on with that?
JES: Well, there was an effort to essentially restore part of that marsh and it was done. I mean, as you point out, it took a couple of decades, almost, to really get it done. And at least the initial phase of it was finally done not much more than a year ago. The point there was, it’s a huge wildlife area, the Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge. So it has a certain amount of protection, but all kinds of spill was dumped into it over the years by the City of Bridgeport. And it caused the marsh to be even further hampered than it already was — it was considered an impacted marsh. And the point was to get it opened up and the water able to flow in and out and flush properly. And that work was done. Really, we’ve only been through one summer since then. The folks who worked on it were Audubon Connecticut, along with a bunch of other nonprofits. I mean, it takes a lot of people and a lot of money and a lot of organizations to do this. The initial look is that the water is flowing better, the impacted nature of that marsh has been alleviated somewhat, in that part of the problem it had been creating was a whole lot of mosquitoes. There seem to be fewer mosquitoes, which is a good thing healthwise. And when that marsh was filling up, it was also pushing into residential areas of Stratford, which were also flooding for a bunch of different reasons. But that was one of them.
You know, another piece of that was the issue of the saltmarsh sparrow, which is why Audubon Connecticut got involved. That is a very endangered species. Connecticut is one of its prime nesting spots in the entire world. It nests in salt marshes very low down. And if you’ve got sea level rise and storms at the wrong time of the year, it’s gonna wash right over those nests, and those baby birds will not survive. And so part of what was being done in restoring this marsh was to help this endangered species survive.
WSHU: The birds have survived and wildlife seems to be thriving in the marsh now.
JES: It will be hard to know for a number of other years whether it’s been entirely successful. What the folks at Audubon told me is that it takes a good solid 10 years to really see if these measures will work. You know, one of the things they did was build these mounds that are called hummocks for the saltmarsh sparrows so they could nest a little higher. In the one season that they’ve been there, they have not seen birds in the hummocks but they haven’t seen the birds be afraid of the hummocks. So that’s a good first step.
WSHU: Well, there are exciting things happening. Thank you so much, Jan, I really appreciate you joining us.