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As waves from storm events go over the reef they will attenuate, or become less intense – saving the salt marshes from damage. Credit: Steve Droter

People Behind a Stronger Coast: Kevin Holcomb and Amy Ferguson

More frequent storms surges have continued to sculpt habitat and public access along the Virginia coastline. At Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge — one of the country’s most visited refuges — supervisory biologist Kevin Holcomb is using oysters to face the challenges of sea-level rise and climate change.

This past spring, Holcomb and partners installed a living shoreline totaling over 3,650 linear feet of oyster reef at the refuge. The oyster reef protects the refuge’s shoreline and access roads by slowing down the speed and intensity of incoming waves. Amy Ferguson, a graduate student from the University of Virginia, is measuring this slowing down process — called attenuation — as part of a partnership with The Nature Conservancy.

“Anything that can help nature help itself — like artificial oyster reefs or marsh enhancements — I think is a great thing to consider when looking at shoreline protection methods,” says Ferguson.

What makes a shoreline come alive? Coasts are often protected by grey, hardened infrastructure such as bulkheads and sea walls that don’t provide habitat for estuarine wildlife and can lead to even more damage to the ecosystem over time. In contrast, a living shoreline such as an oyster reef creates habitat and buffers wave energy — instead of the wave hitting a wall at full force, its energy is dampened by the breakwater reef.

Overseeing the refuge’s oyster restoration project is The Nature Conservancy’s Virginia Coast Reserve and the Virginia Marine Resources Commission. This past spring, volunteers, community members and partners gathered to move 13,800 cement “oyster castle” blocks to help lay the foundations at Tom’s Cove and Assateague Bay.

The oyster castle blocks act as substrate for oyster spat to cling on to. The blocks are stacked so that as oyster colonies grow, they increase in size until a reef forms. It takes around three years for the reef to form, but Holcomb says that the benefits can last decades — benefits such as filtration of nutrients and water, food for shorebirds and biodiversity.

These oyster reefs will enhance Chincoteauge’s rich coastal environment and natural treasures. And the refuge’s popularity with visitors — whether for wildlife observation, nature photography, hunting or fishing — is also a valuable asset for the local community. A 2006 economic study by the USFWS estimates that tourism from the refuge contributes $315 million in annual spending and 3,766 jobs.

“Chincoteague has a wonderful array of wildlife for easy observation by the public,” says Holcomb. “Our visitors come to see the birds, beach and the Chincoteague ponies which make the refuge and the town famous.”

When Hurricane Sandy made landfall four years ago in October 2012, most of the damage to the refuge was downed trees and road washouts, which threatened tourism areas. To prepare for the next big storm event, refuge managers and biologists like Holcomb wanted to use natural methods like a living shoreline. Chincoteague NWR received more than $500,000 in federal funding from the Hurricane Sandy Disaster Relief Act to work with their partners to enhance, restore, and build a more resilient natural defense system to make their community #StrongerAfterSandy.

This is the third in a five part series of photo slideshows highlighting the people who have been working to defend their coastal ecosystems against storms in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. In previous weeks we have looked at Matt Whitbeck and Miles Simmons, combating climate change in the Chesapeake Bay and Julie Devers, assessing fish barriers and culverts in Maryland.  You can view the continuation of this series and other news regarding our restoration and recovery projects on our website.

 

 

A stretch below Highland dam that is a good representation of what the stream will look like once dams are removed. Credit: Nick Millett/USFWS

With Some Mussel, We Move Dams.

I ended my first week with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service waist deep in the West Fork River cleaning up the decades of trash recently exposed due to 2 of 3 successful obsolete dam removals. Now finally, the third and final dam has been dismantled.

This day has long been awaited; 9 years in the making. It took years of planning, grant-writing, regulation checking, and public hearings to embark on West Virginia’s very first stream enhancement dam removal project.

The project targeted 3 obsolete low-head dams: West Milford Dam – 94 years old, Two Lick Dam – 105 years old, and Highland Dam – 85 years old. The dams were established for drinking water and irrigation purposes, but construction of the Stonewall Jackson Dam in 1990 rendered these 3 dams obsolete. With the deconstruction of these century old dams, fish are now free to migrate through 491 miles of streams and tributaries upstream of the Hartland Dam. The West Fork River reconnection is the state’s most significant river restoration effort.

The dam removals will eliminate the safety hazards low-head dams create, while improving water quality, river habitat, and opportunities to fish and paddle on the river.  Restoration on the river will increase safety, cleanliness, and the natural beauty of the West Fork River within Harrison County. There is a national effort to remove these obsolete dams and restore rivers. Since the movement push over the past two decades, the Service, along with partners, has removed more than 1,600 barriers to fish passage.

 

After the dams were removed the water level dropped, more than ten feet in some parts of the river. The extreme weight of these saturated streambanks led to bank sloughing and roadway collapse in vulnerable areas.  The Service worked with the West Virginia Division of Highways to address areas of concern and reinforce potential bank failures. Another task was the relocation of freshwater mussels stranded by the receding waters. Crews from AllStar Ecology LLC, the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, Davis and Elkins College, and West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection Rehabilitation Environmental Action Plan program, joined our office to gather and relocate 1,430 stranded native mussels representing 9 species from the exposed river banks. The mussels were recorded for species data and transferred to newly established riffle/run habitat along the West Fork River.

 

In order to beautify the banks along the West Fork River, crews of volunteers set out over many weekends to help remove trash and large debris. Some items removed from the river included a whole car, a car frame, washing machines, furniture, televisions, and even a wooden slot machine! In 8 volunteer crew clean-ups, over 54,000 pounds of trash and 818 tires were pulled from the river. West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection REAP has worked with the Service to properly dispose of the removed debris. Trash removal efforts will continue in the spring in cooperation with Fishing Report WV, a Facebook group comprised of local fisherman dedicated to cleaning up rivers throughout the state.

In the coming year, plans have been set forth to install a structure at the Hartland Dam to provide passage to fish and non-motorized boaters. This will increase the newly reconnected river and stream another 32 miles, from a total of 491 to 523 contiguous miles returning free-flowing conditions not seen in a century. Free-flowing water encourages diversity and resilient river ecosystems that flush nutrient, pollution, and sediment. By doing so, the river supports freshwater mussels and fish populations and enhances fishing for sport species.

Nearly a century of obstruction, 9 years of coordination, and 9 months of deconstruction;  finally, the fish are able to swim freely once again on the West Fork River.

Project partners include the Clarksburg Water Board, Canaan Valley Institute, Southwestern Energy, West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, American Rivers, AllStar Ecology, LLC., West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, Fishing Report WV, Ohio River Basin Fish Habitat Partnership, National Fish Passage Program, and the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Improvements of culvert designs can increase the safety of surrounding communities and commuters. Credit: Steve Droter

People Behind a Stronger Coast: Julie Devers

Just outside of Centreville, Maryland, you can find Julie Devers waist deep in water on the side of the road. With measuring tape in hand, she is assessing one of more than 30,000 road-stream crossings in the state.  The particular culverts she is examining are known to be a severe barrier to fish passage. Safety for people and connectivity for fish and wildlife can be enhanced by simply repairing and redesigning these crossings.

Devers is a fish biologist with the Maryland Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office. By partnering with the Maryland State Highway Administration, NOAA Fisheries and Maryland Department of Natural Resources, they have been assessing road-stream crossings to develop recommendations of which culverts and crossings should be prioritized for repair. “Highways have a maintenance schedule,” says Devers, and through their recommendations, “the SHA could replace [the culverts] when they redo the highway.”

Entire roads can be wiped out if they are undersized or poorly designed.  “What we saw in the Northeast during Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee is that undersized culverts really caused a lot of damage,” says Devers. Flooding from storm surges are not able to pass through these barriers and can cause thousands of dollars of damage to roads and property. As we mark the fourth anniversary of Hurricane Sandy’s devastation of the Atlantic Coast, it is important to keep in mind the impact that these climate events can have on our communities.

For species of river herrings like alewife, blueback herring and American shad the difference between a fish-friendly passageway and a severe barrier is more than a safety concern; it’s about life or death. These species are vital to the food web. Alewife have been known to be eaten by nearly anything throughout their transition in habitat; ranging from cod, halibut, fox, and eagles.

These migratory species travel from saltwater to freshwater to lay their eggs. If there are blockages along the way, they won’t be able to complete their journey. Even for nonmigratory species, such as brook trout, the inability to travel upstream could leave entire populations separated causing a genetic bottleneck. The brook trout stream near her home, one of the last in Anne Arundel County, says Devers, is considered a “relic” to the locals.

Across the whole Northeast, there are an estimated 210,000 bridges, culverts, and dams spanning 280,000 miles of river. Many of them, you are passing on your morning commute and are throughout your community. While many of these dams and bridges serve important purposes, old and inadequate designs make them a risk.

After Hurricane Sandy, funding through the Disaster Relief Appropriations Act of 2013 has supported dozens of projects to restore rivers and streams and remove barriers to connectivity. With this funding, projects throughout Maryland have been able to better protect their communities and coastline through increases resiliency. Groups like the North Atlantic Aquatic Connectivity Collaborative were able to utilize this funding to create a map and database for biologists like Devers and for the public to use. These tools provide information about the assessed barriers in a region and rates how bad they are for fish passage or safety.

Through the work of biologists like Devers, we are able to make our communities more resilient. By working to identify the features in our communities that could pose a risk to people and wildlife, she is giving stakeholders the tools to create the change needed to make us #StrongerAfterSandy.

This is the second in a five part series of photo slideshows highlighting the people who have been working to defend their coastal ecosystems against storms in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. Last week, we looked at Matt Whitbeck and Miles Simmons in Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. You can view the continuation of this series and other news regarding our restoration and recovery projects on our website.