Coastal marshes at Parker River National Wildlife Refuge in Newburyport, Massachusetts. Credit: Kelly Fike/USFWS

Nature as protection for coastal towns in Massachusetts

The Great Marsh is a diverse ecosystem of barrier beaches, dunes, and bodies of water aptly named to recognize its nearly 10,000 acres of salt marshes — making it the largest marsh system north of Long Island, New York. Some of the largest migratory fish runs make their way through these shorelines, and the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge is a vital stop along the Atlantic Flyway Migratory route for numerous rare birds.

For surrounding towns, the marsh also provides critical protection for people and property.

The Great Marsh borders five Massachusetts coastal towns: Essex, Gloucester, Ipswich, Newbury, and Rowley. This coastal wetland acts as a natural buffer against the sea, and the towns surrounding it are recognizing the value the marsh has for public safety, tourism and revenue.

These towns have come together, joined by scientific experts, nonprofits, and partners, to create a community resiliency planning effort to facilitate strategic meetings as they work to create a long-term plan to mitigate the marsh’s vulnerabilities to flooding, storm surge and sea-level rise.

The Great Marsh

Scientists are looking for answers on how climate change will affect tidal estuaries in the Plum Island Estuary, also known as the Great Marsh.

The need to address these vulnerabilities is becoming increasingly necessary as the predicted threats of climate change begin to shape the coastline. Many coastal residents came face to face with these vulnerabilities in 2012 when Hurricane Sandy made landfall.

“A challenge,” said Taj Schottland of the National Wildlife Federation, “or area of opportunity, is the complex ownership and management [of the] landscape. All of the surrounding towns and partners own or manage land in the Great Marsh.” In order to work on the multiple projects being funded to increase resiliency in the marsh, they “had to reach out and engage stakeholders and investors.”

The integration of community planning alongside risk assessment of predicted increased future climate impacts is setting the Great Marsh community apart by linking ecological resiliency with community resiliency and emphasizing the use of nature as protection.

The Great Marsh, and other communities along the Atlantic Coast, are using nature-based measures to enhance their coastline.

Take, for instance, the challenge of erosion — one of the biggest threats to the local barrier beaches. Sea-level rise and increased storm surges are causing higher tides, leading to salinity problems in the marsh system. The deterioration of barrier beaches also threatens the security of the local community — according to Schottland, many of the neighborhoods that are built along this marsh will become inundated by 2030 if sea levels continue to rise as anticipated.


Salt marsh erosion is affecting communities all along the coast, including in Delaware Bay (pictured) as a result of sea-level rise. Extreme storms and floods are predicted to increase in the Northeast as a result of climate change. (Credit: Katie Conrad/US Fish and Wildlife Service)

A common solution to these sea-level changes would be to install gray infrastructure such as a man-made bulkhead. That could lead to “bad consequences as it degrades over time,” said Schottland. As an alternative, wildlife managers at Great Marsh are using nature-based measures such as beach nourishment and the planting of native vegetation.  By using sustainable solutions and working collaboratively, the entire North Shore community is able to benefit.

The creation of the community resiliency planning effort is only one example of the innovative solutions being brought to the Great Marsh. The restoration and reinforcement of over 325 acres of stable marshland and eelgrass vegetation is nearly complete through the use of beach nourishment and the planting of native plants.

Additional projects include the creation of a hydrodynamic model which will collect data usable by all the surrounding towns and partners to better understand sediments, salinity, and waterflow. Another collaborative effort will result in a risk analysis of the nearly 1,500 hydro-barriers such as dams and bridges in the area.

While many of the goals for restoration and resiliency are expected to be met by June 2017, these nature-based solutions and collaborative efforts will require monitoring and continued commitment from the community.

This strategy of adapting nature-based solutions in coastal resiliency extends outside of the planning done by the task force and has become a tool for innovation in the surrounding towns.

In Essex, one defining asset is the Essex River which leads to the Essex and Ipswich Bay. When the town was faced with having to dredge the river and remove the buildup of silt, the common practice was to dump the silt far offshore.

But Essex town administrator, Brendhan Zubricki — who has been an active part of the community planning effort since its inception — went in search of a nature-based solution. He and the town have been working with the Army Corp of Engineers and Massachusetts Coastal Zoning Management to create a feasibility study on how to reuse the organic material to build up new and current marshes.

As a town, he said that they “are most interested in using the natural environment to mitigate these natural effects [of coastal storms] by not having to build anything except green infrastructure.”

Coastal marshes at Parker River National Wildlife Refuge in Newburyport, Massachusetts. Credit: Kelly Fike/USFWS

Coastal marshes at Parker River National Wildlife Refuge in Newburyport, Massachusetts. Credit: Kelly Fike/USFWS

2 thoughts on “Nature as protection for coastal towns in Massachusetts

  1. Pingback: Four Years After the Storm: The Legacy of Hurricane Sandy | Green Society

  2. Pingback: Four Years After the Storm: The Legacy of Hurricane Sandy - Hydroponics Highway

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