Facing our climate’s “new normal” with solutions for people and wildlife
By Wendi Weber, North Atlantic-Appalachian Regional Director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
In times of crisis, our actions need to be informed by our past and guided by our vision for the future. When life-altering circumstances like the pandemic and climate change test our resilience, we must follow the science and choose adaptable solutions.
June is National Ocean Month, when we highlight the invaluable contributions the global ocean makes to our economy, environment, and wildlife resources. It’s also a time to reflect on the challenges our coastal communities are facing, including higher sea levels and more-frequent intense storms.
The Atlantic hurricane season started June 1. This year, there’s a new yardstick for comparing year-to-year hurricane activity, as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently updated its climate normals based on data from the previous 30 years.
The new normals reflect increased Atlantic storm activity, along with warmer, wetter conditions on the East Coast. The average Atlantic hurricane season has two more named storms and one more hurricane than it did using older data. Beyond that, researchers at Colorado State University have predicted an “above average” Atlantic hurricane season this year.
In the face of rising seas and more-formidable weather, we need a resilient coast that can absorb storm surge and wave energy and recover quickly, with little need for repair. Using natural infrastructure, we can create such a coast.
What does natural infrastructure look like? It looks like healthy salt marshes that soak up rising water like sponges and provide habitat for species like the saltmarsh sparrow, whose numbers are declining rapidly. It looks like free-flowing rivers that reduce flooding of nearby communities and let fish swim from the ocean to historical spawning grounds. And it looks like oyster reefs and other living shorelines that buffer coastal zones from wave erosion and create new habitat for marine life.
In short, natural infrastructure provides solutions that benefit people and wildlife, improve with time, and have a high return on investment.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and partners — including towns, states, Tribes, universities, industry, landowners, and nonprofits — are well on the way to making natural infrastructure the new normal across the Atlantic Coast. Nearly a decade after Hurricane Sandy devastated communities and wildlife habitat from Florida to Maine, incredible work has been done — beaches, dunes, and marshes restored; dams removed; and living shorelines built.
This is what success looks like:
In Maryland, the removal in 2018 of Bloede Dam on the Patapsco River — a collaboration of American Rivers, the state of Maryland, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Service and others — restored access to more than 65 miles of river habitat for migratory fish, including alewives and blueback herring, collectively known as river herring.
This spring, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, which owned the dam and was a partner in its removal, found both species of river herring above the dam’s former site. They were the first known to make it that far upriver since Bloede was built more than a century ago.
These economically and ecologically important fish experienced significant population declines throughout the region, in part due to limited access to spawning habitat. Findings like this spring’s herring confirm what we’ve seen in so many locations: Dam removals can help migratory fish populations recover.
They also provide multiple benefits to people and communities. Removing Bloede eliminated a serious public safety hazard; there had been at least nine dam-related deaths since the 1980s. It also put an end to the environmental risks associated with a sewer pipe that carried millions of gallons of sewage through part of the structure.
Additionally, studies have shown that each mile of river opened so fish can move freely can contribute more than $500,000 in social and economic benefits, such as recreational fishing and tourism.
In Delaware, with partners including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the state of Delaware, we’ve completed a $38 million project to restore 4,000 acres of tidal marsh at Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge.
By stabilizing marshes and beaches, restoring wetlands, and improving the resilience of coastal areas, the Prime Hook restoration exemplifies how strengthening natural defenses can help protect local communities during intense storms.
Residents of the local residential and agricultural communities have benefited from reduced flooding. In fact, there’s been no flood-related closure of Prime Hook Road, which passes through the refuge to Prime Hook beach, since the project’s completion. The road previously had been subject to flooding from storms and high tides.
The work has also improved habitat for vulnerable species.
In 2020, 16 nesting pairs of federally threatened piping plovers were counted at Prime Hook’s restored Fowler Beach. These pairs were part of a new record number for Delaware. Fowler Beach is also providing breeding habit for least terns, listed as endangered by the state of Delaware.
Additionally, with water flow restored, many areas of open water have also returned to marsh with grasses and other vegetation. These plants absorb and retain carbon and provide habitat for wildlife, including the at-risk saltmarsh sparrow.
These projects are among more than 70 supported by $167 million in federal funding the Service received for Hurricane Sandy recovery and resilience. Each is making a difference in its own way to create more resilient and healthy natural environments that help wildlife and people thrive.
Increasing climate challenges call for smart, adaptive, and innovative solutions. In warmer, wetter, stormier parts of the world, strengthening natural infrastructure is the new normal we need to rise to these challenges.