CAPE MAY — When Hurricane Sandy hit in October 2012, a renovated South Cape May Meadows absorbed the storm’s rain and held it in its restored freshwater wetlands, protecting nearby homes on Sunset Boulevard.
And the rebuilt dunes on its ocean side held back the saltwater storm surge, keeping the Meadows and homes from being inundated with ocean water, said Nature Conservancy Director of Marine and Coastal Programs Patty Doerr.
The nonprofit Conservancy owns the 200-acre property just north of Cape May Point State Park.
The $15 million renovation project was completed in 2007, so it is celebrating its 10th anniversary as Hurricane Sandy’s fifth anniversary approaches next month.
Undertaken with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other partners, it was a project to benefit both wildlife and the people who live near the Meadows, whose homes had been threatened by flooding before the renovation, said Dwight Pakan, the Corps’ manager on the project.
The freshwater system provides habitat for a variety of wildlife, and the ability to manage the water level with a series of weirs, or dams, providing flood control.
“The trails are actually dikes that divide the water into cells we can manage independently,” said Adrianna Zito-Livingston, Cape May Preserve coordinator for the Nature Conservancy.
Staff can lower the water level ahead of storms, sending it gradually into the Cape Island Creek and giving the wetlands greater capacity to hold rain water, she said.
When shorebirds arrive on migration, the water level can be lowered to give them more access to mud flats and the critters that live in them, Zito-Livingston said.
The Meadows, an internationally known bird migration stop on the Atlantic Flyway, provides a resting and feeding spot for about 60,000 raptors and more than 1 million shorebirds a year, according to the Army Corps.
About 90,000 cars a year visit the site, said Zito-Livingston, which translates to almost 250,000 people.
Not every aspect of the project has remained successful.
The beach was rebuilt to be wide and flat, as good habitat for piping plover. But after a few years of nesting success, the plovers stopped nesting there. The birds have all but disappeared through much of southern Cape May County, Zito-Livingston said.
No piping plover nested at the Meadows this year, even though a mile of beach area was fenced off for them.
It may be that too much vegetation has started growing on the flat sand, said Army Corps biologist Beth Brandreth, adding she will work with the Nature Conservancy to see if there is a way to reduce some of the vegetation.
It is still necessary to apply a herbicide each fall to control the phragmites on the site, said Zito-Livingston, although now only about 20 acres need to be treated, compared with about 120 acres at the start of the project.
The project is one of more than 20 case studies highlighted on the Nature Conservancy’s national Naturally Resilient Communities website at NRCSolutions.org.
“We capture the best stories we can,” said the NRC’s Nate Woiwode, whether they are Nature Conservancy projects or not, to encourage communities with flooding problems to consider natural solutions.
“We firmly believe there is a nature-based solution for every community,” Woiwode said. “Each project may look different, but underneath they are principally the same. Nature has a well-developed way of dealing with water and dealing with flooding.”
The Nature Conservancy and the Army Corps partnered with the state Department of Environmental Protection, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, several municipalities and Cape May Point State Park next door on the project. It also provided resiliency measures at Cape May Point State Park.
The ecosystem restoration components of the project cost $4.8 million, and the beachfill’s initial construction was $8.4 million, said Army Corps spokesman Steve Rochette.
Beachfill renourishments since then have cost $29.2 million, covering Cape May Point as well as the Nature Conservancy property, he said.