DEP Works to Restore NJ Wetlands

By Lauren Wanko

A slurry of sand and water is pumped from the Intracoastal Waterway into a salt water marsh to create a nesting habitat for the state-endangered black skimmer.

“We think one of the real limiting factors for black skimmers in New Jersey is the availability of a suitable nesting habitat,” said Dave Golden of the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife.

Which is why creating that ideal habitat is part of the Department of Environmental Protection’s pilot project to use material from dredging projects to restore degraded wetlands.

“Right now sea levels are rising and what’s happening is the marsh overall is losing elevation relative to sea level. So we’re seeing higher water levels in the marsh, more frequent flooding,” said Lenore Tedesco of The Wetlands Institute.

Tedesco says that diminishes the marsh’s health and ability to protect coastal communities from storm surge.

“Some of the normal high tide we’re getting is so high, the marsh is becoming part of the bay,” she said.

And that’s wiped out plants and flooded birds’ nests.

“There’s a whole series of birds that are actually declining because they can’t nest in the marsh any more,” Tedesco said.

The DEP’s Division of Fish and Wildlife chose to build the bird habitat in Middle Township because there are already several bird species that rely on the coastal wetlands.

This is an ideal nesting habitat for black skimmers because the birds nest on sand, above high tide, in an area that’s in close proximity to tidal creeks.

“Competition is pretty extreme for nesting habitats,” said Laurie Pettigrew of the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife.

That’s because the birds are competing with humans for the space. Before the project began, a chemical analysis was completed on the dredged material to ensure it was not contaminated. Once the Army Corps of Engineers pumps the sand onto the wetlands they’ll shape it to create something similar to a big sandbar.

“It’s top elevation it will be five feet above mean high water. We need to build it that high so during these astronomical tides we’re having, these areas don’t get flooded out,” Pettigrew said.

Another part of the project not yet started is called thin-layer placement.

“This layer placement is where we’re adding small amounts of sediment to the marsh anywhere from three to nine inches to bring the marsh plain up to an optimum level where vegetation can be healthy,” Pettigrew explained.

The work here in Middle Township is the first of three project sites in South Jersey expected to restore about 90 acres of wetlands and nearly a mile of shoreline.