Author Archives: USFWSNORTHEASTBLOG

Harvell Dam on the Appomattox River

Downing Harvell Dam opens up 127 miles of Virginia’s Appomattox River

Today we hear from Albert Spells, our fisheries coordinator for Virginia, sharing his story about the recent demolition of the Harvell Dam and what it means for migratory fish.

Harvell Dam_GONE_AWeaver

Photo credit: Virginia Dept of Game and Inland Fisheries/ Alan Weaver

Albert Spells, Virginia Fisheries Coordinator. Photo: USFWS

Albert Spells, Virginia Fisheries Coordinator. Photo credit: USFWS

Wow! It has  been almost surreal to experience the Harvell Dam being removed in Petersburg, Virginia. It is a project I have worked on for nearly five years, and it is so gratifying to see the water flowing freely along this stretch of the Appomattox River.

Harvell Dam on the Appomattox River

The Harvell Dam as it sat in the Appomattox River in Petersburg, Virginia. Photo credit: Virginia Dept. of Game and Inland Fisheries/ Alan Weaver

Since 1930 the dam has been a clog in the free flow of the river, impeding fish and other aquatic wildlife from reaching their native habitats. There is even historical evidence that there has been a dam structure at or near the site of the Harvell Dam dating back to the mid-1700s. And just below the site of the dam there is still visible evidence that Native Americans altered fish movement with rock weirs to help collect food.

All these structures have impounded the river’s free flow and for centuries have blocked upstream movement of American shad, river herring, hickory shad, striped bass and American eel.

Working to remove the Harvell Dam. Photo Credit: USFWS/ Albert Spells

Working to remove the Harvell Dam. Photo Credit: USFWS/ Albert Spells

On July 1, 2014, work began to remove the dam. Deconstruction was slow to begin, but on July 23 water breached the barricade. And now, with the demolition complete, the river runs freely again for the first time in more than 250 years. A good change has come upon the river; it’s been a long time coming.

Dam removal is complete: A free flowing Appomattox River. Photo credit: USFWS/ Albert Spells

Dam removal is complete: A free flowing Appomattox River. Photo credit: USFWS/ Albert Spells

From a viewpoint at the dam’s former site, I have seen American shad, American eel, river herring and other fish species swimming in the river. These migrant swimmers have gained access to nearly 127 miles of spawning and nursery habitat upstream. And although there are additional man-made obstacles structures upstream, there are fishways installed that allow passage past them.

I am excited about the possibilities of improved fish returns and plan to monitor fish movement on the river next spring and in the years to come.

Photo credit: USFWS/ Albert Spells

Photo credit: USFWS/ Albert Spells

Many partners have made this event possible, but none more than the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries and the great work of Fish Passage Coordinator Alan Weaver. The VDGIF and the Environmental Protection Agency’s Chesapeake Bay Program funded the feasibility study for the dam removal. The design and removal phase was funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Restoration Center, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service National Fish Passage Program and VDGIF. American Rivers has continued to provide much needed support and promotion of the project, and the project would also not be possible without the cooperation of the owner, Harvell Dam Corporation and local support from the City of Petersburg.

Read the news release to learn more about this project.

Research Specialist Christina Cerino measures a captured bird for the SHARP survey. Credit: Charlotte Murtishaw/USFWS

Looking SHARP: Students, salt marshes, and that elusive sparrow

Charlotte and ZucchiniABOUT THE AUTHOR: Charlotte Murtishaw is a Student Conservation Association and Hurricane Sandy youth story corps intern, serving as a communications specialist for the Service’s Hurricane Sandy recovery program. She grew up in New Jersey and currently attends Barnard College in New York, where she’s an American Studies major focusing on postwar media and culture as well as environmental history (independently and in conjunction with each other). You can find her biking, swimming, and hiking around the Pioneer Valley this summer, usually on the way to the next best bookstore.


 

Emma Shelly probably wakes up earlier than you.

Every morning, the University of Connecticut PhD student gets out of bed at 4:30 and hops in the car. She leaves her home near UConn, and drives nearly an hour to Barn Island Wildlife Management Area in the coastal town of Stonington, Ct., picking up her assistants along the way.

The early start does have its perks for the group, though.

“The mornings are really beautiful,” says research specialist Christina Cerino. “You catch a lot of good sunrises.”

Site leader Emma Shelly, flanked by her research specialists Chistina Cerino (L) and Jeanna Mielcarek (R). Credit: Charlotte Murtishaw/USFWS

Site leader Emma Shelly, flanked by her research specialists Chistina Cerino (L) and Jeanna Mielcarek (R). Credit: Charlotte Murtishaw/USFWS

Emma and Christina are both in their second summer working for SHARP–the Saltmarsh Habitat & Avian Research Program. The program was founded by a group of academic, governmental, and non-profit collaborators to provide critical information for the conservation of tidal-marsh birds. It evolved from more than a decade of saltmarsh sparrow surveys conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, states and other partners on national wildlife refuges throughout the Northeast, ultimately expanding to more than 900 current sites. The Refuge System’s Inventory and Monitoring (I&M) program is supporting development of standardized data collection methods and a database that will help SHARP participants evaluate population and habitat status and develop targets for future conservation needs.

Last year SHARP gained additional resources through a Hurricane Sandy grant from the Department of the Interior for a comprehensive tidal marsh bird project. The money not only continues to support SHARP efforts to gauge the effects of climate change on threatened species like the saltmarsh sparrow and clapper rail, but also engages youth and graduate students with Sandy projects. Opportunities often involve hands-on field experience collecting data, such as the work at Barn Island.

Because the project had already gathered so much data on tidal marsh birds and their habitat before Hurricane Sandy hit in October, 2012, researchers are able to make easy comparisons between healthy habitat and current conditions, such as sea levels and bird populations. But SHARP isn’t just for the birds. With more than 20 sites stretching from Maine to New Jersey, the program is a chance for students in environmental fields to get hands-on experience in conservation, as well as dabble in their own research. While she works on SHARP as a crew leader, Emma also gathers information for her Ph.D., on the mating preferences of the notoriously polyamorous saltmarsh sparrow.

In the field, Emma, Christina, and another research specialist, Jeanna Mielcarek, set up fine mist nets to catch incoming birds, and band the female saltmarsh sparrows with identification tags. They take weight, wingspan, and other measurements at the same time, and comb the marsh for nests to flag and track.

Other animals pop up in the salt marsh, which is among one of the most biodiverse habitats in the world, ranking up there with the tropical rainforest. Jeanna finds a praying mantis, and retrieves a bright goldfinch from the mist net. At Barn Island, anything goes.

“We catch a lot of birds we aren’t targeting for,” Christina says. “There are surprises every day.” Blackbirds, she said, are grabby and nippy; male sparrows are more aggressive (but she hastens to clarify all observations are anecdotal).

Christina got her start last summer under UConn professor and site leader Chris Elphick. “[Christina] came out as a volunteer last year and learned some basics and this year has picked up a lot more,” said Elphick, who’s been birding since childhood. “We have to stagger experience a little bit so we’re training people we can hire next year as the more experienced person.”

SHARP is a breeding ground for burgeoning biologists and conservationists. Though the main corps is made up of graduate students, UMaine assistant professor and principal investigator Brian Olsen emphasizes that exposing students to hands on experience is built into the framework of the project.

“We try to slide in an undergraduate or two as well to train somebody up, so we usually have at least one person who’s never done anything on the crew and then that mixes in with the experienced hands,” Olsen said.

In Emma’s case, that meant assisting as a field tech last summer before being promoted to her leadership position.

“I was really grateful to come out here the year before to learn the ropes and how to set up the arrays and do all the bird handling and things like that,” she said.

Now, she’s in charge, arranging the schedule and making decisions while shouldering her personal research. “You work really hard, but you don’t have anyone breathing down your shoulder about it, so it’s all up to you to be self-motivated.”

On-site, it doesn’t seem like anybody needs much extra motivation. “This is sort of what I want to do as an actual career, wildlife conservation,” Christina said.
Why?

“Everyday you’ll do something new. Every day there’ll be something exciting that happens, even small things, and it’s never boring. You do feel satisfied with your job, even if you’re tired and muddy and really hungry at the end of the day, you still had a great time out in the marsh and got to interact with animals.”

A salt marsh sparrow nest, full of newly hatched babies, is nestled in the tall grasses at Barn Island WMA. Credit: Margie Brenner/USFWS

A salt marsh sparrow nest, full of newly hatched babies, is nestled in the tall grasses at Barn Island WMA. Credit: Margie Brenner/USFWS

 

View a video clip about the SHARP surveys at Barn Island

Read more about USFWS-funded avian science and the SHARP program

View more photos from the SHARP Barn Island survey

 

SCA intern Charlotte Murtishaw is part of the Service’s Hurricane Sandy youth story corps, which provides communications experience to college interns as a part of our agency’s commitment to engaging youth in conservation.

 

 

Credit: NASA

Strong After Sandy

SandyHits-CreditUSFWS

Hurricane Sandy’s landfall on Monday, Oct. 29, 2012 was marked by record levels of storm surge in New Jersey, New York and Connecticut, and tropical storm force winds impacted an area about 1,000 miles in diameter. A federal impact assessment in 2013 estimated that Sandy damages exceeded $50 billion, with 24 states impacted by the storm. In addition to the extensive loss of life, livelihood and property, the region’s natural areas were greatly impacted. National wildlife refuges suffered loss of habitat, refuge staff productivity and visitor opportunities. Rain washed out roads, trails and dikes, hindering habitat management and reducing visitor access. Storm surge left miles of debris and hazardous materials on beaches, in coastal marshes and forests, degrading habitat and endangering staff and visitors. High winds damaged buildings and caused power outages across refuge properties.

With the coming hurricane season set to begin on June 1, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service continues working hard with partners to enhance and strengthen coastal areas by restoring beaches, dunes and marshes, removing or replacing obsolete dams and damaged or undersized road culverts and building innovatively designed breakwaters and water control structures. These efforts are designed to benefit fish and wildlife resources, and at the same time protect people and communities from flooding and increased storm surge from future weather events.

Repair and Prepare

In May 2013 the Service received $65 million in initial Hurricane Sandy funding from the Department of the Interior, through the Disaster Relief Appropriations Act of 2013. Since then, the Service has been working extensively to make refuges safer and healthier for visitors and staff by cleaning up damage dealt to National Wildlife Refuges and upgrading facilities to withstand future storms.  Later that year the Service received an additional $102 million from the Act for 31 resilience projects which focus both on protecting coastal communities from flooding and future storms and addressing more long-term concerns, including sea level rise and preservation of habitat for vulnerable species.

Completed projects, those  in progress or projects that are projected to launch later this year include:

Before and after: A coastal marsh area at the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge just after Hurricane Sandy, and then about 18 months later after cleanup effort. Credit: Ryan Hagerty (before); Virginia Rettig (after)/USFWS.

Before and after:
A coastal marsh area at New Jersey’s Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge just after Hurricane Sandy, and then about 18 months later after cleanup effort. Credit: Ryan Hagerty (before); Virginia Rettig (after)/USFWS.

Restoring Refuges: Since October 2013, the USFWS has removed nearly 500 tons of debris from beaches and coastal marshes at Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge and the Long Island National Wildlife Refuge Complex, at the heart of Hurricane Sandy’s impact zone. Debris fields along the New York-New Jersey coasts have contained roofs, docks, boats, barrels, fuel tanks, drums and household chemicals, as well as a few items of interest. When completed, the debris cleanup will restore thousands of acres of coastal marsh habitat and provide visitors opportunities for safe and healthy outdoor experiences at these natural areas once again.

The Service and its partners moved 45,000 tons of sand over three weeks to restore Delaware Bay beaches just in time for horseshoe crabs and migrating shorebirds.Credit: Eric Schrading/USFWS.

The Service and its partners moved 45,000 tons of sand over three weeks to restore Delaware Bay beaches in New Jersey just in time for horseshoe crabs and migrating shorebirds.Credit: Eric Schrading/USFWS.

Bringing Back the Beach: March of 2014 was a busy time on the Delaware Bay, where the Service worked with partner organizations to restore five beaches that were severely eroded by Sandy. In under a month’s time, 45,000 tons of sand were spread over storm-scoured shores, finishing just in time for returning horseshoe crabs to spawn. For migratory shorebirds like the red knot, which depend on horseshoe crab eggs to make it to the arctic, this was a lifesaver, and early reports on crab and bird rebounds have been very encouraging thanks to these efforts. Restored beaches will also add a layer of protection for coastal communities in New Jersey and promote recreational beach use and ecotourism.

 

The Service is installing backup and solar power systems at 18 locations across the Northeast region.

The Service is installing backup and solar power systems at 18 locations across the Northeast region.

Power Up: Sandy knocked out power in 15 states where an estimated 6 million customers were still without electricity days after the storm hit. Some areas—including some national wildlife refuges—remained without electricity for weeks. In places where USFWS stations were already equipped with emergency, self-powered electrical systems, refuges served as invaluable resources to their surrounding communities during the blackout. To prepare for future storms and equip many more refuges to serve their own communities in a similar capacity, the Service has invested more than $10 million in backup and solar power systems at 18 locations that will assure auxiliary power during future emergencies. Where solar PV arrays are installed, facilities’ carbon output will be reduced and thousands of taxpayer dollars saved on annual refuge utility bills. Installation at most locations is expected to be in full swing by mid-summer.

 

Hail Cove, at the Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge, is part of a $10 million living shoreline effort to restore coastal areas on the Chesapeake Bay. Credit: USFWS

Hail Cove, at the Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge in Maryland, is part of a $10 million living shoreline effort to restore coastal areas on the Chesapeake Bay. Credit: USFWS

It’s Alive: Funded projects in Maryland and Virginia are developing living shorelines in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, at places such as Martin National Wildlife Refuge’s Fog Point, and Hail Cove at the Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge. These undertakings involve ongoing efforts to restore coastal habitat and native plant species, control erosion through dilution of wave energy and enhancement of submerged aquatic vegetation, and will provide flood mitigation in vulnerable communities. More than 25,000 feet of living shoreline will be constructed between the two projects, which collectively received more than $10 million of Hurricane Sandy resilience funding.

 

The Flock Process Dam, which poses a flood risk to both the Merritt Parkway and a major Amtrak rail line in Norwalk, Conn., is one of many slated for removal as part of a region-wide effort to protect adjacent communities and restore natural river and stream connectivity. Credit: Steve Gephard/CTDEEP

The Flock Process Dam, which poses a flood risk to both the Merritt Parkway and a major Amtrak rail line in Norwalk, CT, is one of many slated for removal as part of a region-wide effort to protect adjacent communities and restore natural river and stream connectivity. Credit: Steve Gephard/CTDEEP

Staying Connected: Across the Northeast there exist scores of aging, obsolete dams. Once vital parts of industrial communities across the region, these dams can be hazards to human safety and impediments to natural aquatic connectivity. Even before Sandy, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has overseen dam removals, and is now funding several more planned for dams in Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Rhode Island. Dam removal projects can reduce flood risk from storm-swollen rivers and dam failure, restore access to spawning grounds for fish and eels and promote the return of natural sediment flow, which can help rebuild eroding coastline downstream.