Rediscovering Muddy Creek

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Young paddlers exploring Muddy Creek. Credit: Christine deSilva/christinedesilvia.com

Paddlers have a brand new destination in Chatham and Harwich, MA, thanks to a wetland restoration project that was completed last May. The USFWS Northeast Region and its partners re-opened a previously isolated tidal wetland, providing easy access for kayaks, canoes and paddleboards. This site has quickly become a popular destination for paddlers. Throughout the summer and fall, many enjoyed the tranquility of quietly exploring the newly opened tidal marshes along the shores of Muddy Creek.

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A look upriver into Muddy Creek. Credit: Susan Wojtowicz/USFWS

“This project has provided new access to a site with surprisingly little disturbance because it was so inaccessible historically. The banks to the creek are very steep, poison ivy is everywhere and there is no public boat launch,” explains Sarah Griscom, an analyst for the Town of Chatham’s Water Quality Laboratory and Science Director at Pleasant Bay Community Boating.

“There is much bird life, including osprey, great blue and green herons and kingfishers. A long stretch of the narrow creek gives you a sense of being away from civilization, with no houses or roads in view. The most striking sound is the piercing rattle of the kingfishers as they curse every intruder that paddles by their perch.”

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USFWS Northeast Regional Director Wendi Weber posing with partners at the project’s dedication event. Credit: David Eisenhaur/USFWS

The success of this project is not only measured by environmental benefits, which are certainly plentiful, but by overwhelming partner and community support for the project. It has been easy to gain support for a project that will provide so many amazing benefits to the community, as well as to the environment.

The project involved the removal of an embankment with twin culverts that had been in place for over 100 years, blocking the tides from entering the marshes and greatly restricting flow into the upper reaches of the narrow, 1 kilometer-long creek. Without the daily flushing of tidal ocean water, the area had become stagnant with poor water quality, ruining historic shellfish beds and blocking migratory fish (herring and eel) attempting to travel to and from the ocean.

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Aerial view of Muddy Creek wetland restoration project. Credit: Town of Chatham

The embankment and culverts have now been replaced by a bridge, allowing sea water to flow into Muddy Creek once more. This will restore the estuarine and subtidal wetlands, improving water quality and enhancing the system’s natural defenses against storm surge in the future. And it has already provided public access to a site difficult to reach before the bridge was constructed.

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Muddy Creek Explorers collecting water quality data. Credit: Christine deSilva/ christinedesilva.com

Griscom has observed the environmental and community benefits that the bridge construction has brought about first hand. For the past two years, she has been running Muddy Creek Explorers, a summer educational program provided through Pleasant Bay Community Boating, Inc., that teaches students ages 9-16 how to collect and analyze water quality data as well as encouraging environmental stewardship. Students work in small teams to collect data at several sites about water temperature, salinity (the amount of salt), turbidity (how cloudy the water is), and dissolved oxygen levels. At the end of each class the students graph their data, make a short presentation to the other teams and their families and compare their results to years of data collected by the Pleasant Bay Alliance citizen scientists.

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This young scientist is using a secchi disk to test water turbidity in Muddy Creek. Credit: Christine deSilva/christinedesilva.com

The first season that the program was run, the bridge had not yet been constructed. During that time, Muddy Creek was very difficult to access and it was necessary to gain permission to cross private property to reach the creek. Students rowed small dinghies that were brought to the site for each class.

Griscom reflects, “For years, the upper reaches of Muddy Creek contained 10 times the nutrients found in the outer Pleasant Bay. Algal growth was extreme and caused large fluctuations in the dissolved oxygen levels. As the algae decayed the mud provided a periodic rotten egg stench. It was a stressful place for any bottom-dwelling organisms to eke out a living in the creek. The kids explored and most understood that it was not a healthy system.”

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Students plot their water quality data in graphs to make it easier to visualize their results. Credit: Christine deSilva/christinedesilva.com

By the following summer, the new bridge was already in place. In fact, by working with the state Department of Transportation’s Accelerated Bridge Program, the bridge was built and installed in just 5 months, a huge relief to local motorists! This gave the Muddy Creek Explorers a much simpler way to access Muddy Creek, which was already showing signs of rejuvenation.

“In less than a few months, water clarity improved, salinity levels increased and large swings in the dissolved oxygen levels seem to have stabilized,” explains Griscom. “But time will tell. The ecosystem as a whole is in the early stages of equilibrating to these new conditions. The larger tidal range has already killed some plants along the edges of the creek, as was expected, but this will allow new marshlands to develop over time. Muddy Creek is an unfolding story.”

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Muddy Creek Explorers displaying their data, Credit: Sarah Griscom

Official nutrient data for the Muddy Creek restoration project are currently being analyzed by the marine laboratory at UMass, Dartmouth. These results are expected to be released by the springtime. However, citizen science projects like those conducted by the Pleasant Bay Alliance and by stewardship programs such as the Muddy Creek Explorers can give us a good overview of the progress we are making in improving water and habitat quality in Muddy Creek. Along the way, they are providing a shining example of what can be gained when partnerships truly work together, among themselves and the community, to improve natural places for the benefit of both people and wildlife.

The Muddy Creek Restoration Project was funded in large part by federal sources, including the Hurricane Sandy coastal resilience grants from the Department of the Interior, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration’s Habitat Conservation Program. The remainder of the funding was provided by the state Division of Ecological Restoration, the Town of Chatham, and the Town of Harwich.

For more information, please check out the following links:

USFWS Muddy Creek Restoration Project Website

Pleasant Bay Alliance

Pleasant Bay Community Boating, Inc.

 

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