LOWER TOWNSHIP --Saltwater helped doom Cape May County's first settlement, but now it is being used to help restore the land of the first settlers.
Officials and local residents assembled here at Cox Hall Creek on a sweaty Wednesday afternoon to dedicate a $500,000 project that will restore tidal flow to the waterway. The tide-gate system was actually opened up in April but the transformation back to a healthy salt marsh is expected to take years.
Saltwater from the Delaware Bay, which eroded the original English whaling settlement founded here as early as 1635 and left the original site an estimated 300 feet out into the bay, is key to the plan.
Regular tidal flow is expected to kill the invasive phragmites marsh reeds that have taken over the creek and the mosquitoes they breed, while reducing flooding and eliminating fires that have occurred when the dead reed stalks ignite.
"The benefits to wildlife are going to be extensive,” said Brian Marsh of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which contributed $24,000 to the project. Marsh said as the phragmites die off, native plants will reestablish themselves and herons and egrets return to the area.
The dedication drew local, county, state and federal officials, as numerous agencies contributed. The Cape May County Mosquito Department dug trenches in the marsh. The Lower Township Municipal Utilities Authority and Public Works helped install the piping, piling and tide gates. Several agencies and conservation groups, including the private group Ducks Unlimited gave grants or helped with the project.
"This wouldn't have happened without Ducks Unlimited. They came on and got it jump started," said Deputy Mayor Kevin Lare.
The discovery of a stand of the endangered plant swamp pink also helped. This led to grants.
"Every morning I wake up and thank the dear Lord that the swamp pink plant resides in Lower Township, and I don't think I've ever seen one," said Mayor Mike Beck.
Freeholder Director Gerald Thornton said it also helped that the public got behind the project. Talk of restoring tidal flow began in 1990 but a 1999 fire that led to the evacuation of five streets got the public involved. This resulted in the Cox Hall Creek Focus Group, a group of locals who describe themselves as the "Over the Hill Gang," being formed.
Lee Spruell, who serves on the focus group, said the project should benefit both humans and wildlife. Spruell remembers the fall 1999 arson fire as the low point. That led to a $100,000 grant to do a scoping study. Six potential solutions were offered and the one picked was to restore tidal flow, which had been cut off in the 19th century by salt hay farmers. Testing showed very high levels of fecal coliform bacteria, raising public health implications. The Lower Township MUA had discharged effluent in the creek for years but the creek also takes storm-water from 14 different outfall pipes in the area. A pump designed to take the rainwater into the bay was broken and heavy rains were flooding area houses.
The degraded marsh was ripe to be taken over by phragmites, which grew so thick the fish that eat mosquito larvae could not survive. The dead stalks became a fire hazard. While saltwater kills phragmites, the tide gate should control flooding by allowing rainwater to exit.
"In general both gates will be wide open. If there is a hurricane we'll close the gates and prevent saltwater from coming in but freshwater can still go out," said Brian O'Connor, who oversaw the project for the Cape May County Planning Department.
With some homes in the neighborhood just four feet above the mean tides, O'Connor said the gates would have to be monitored very closely. The New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife will manage water levels. The township will maintain the system.
The creek has a long and storied history. The Dutch bought land in the area in 1630 from the native Lenape Indians but it was the English who set up a whaling station here a few years later. English court physician Dr. Daniel Coxe later built a model mercantile and agricultural community here with Coxe Hall, where Cape May County's first court convened in 1693, as its centerpiece. It was a hub of marine commerce in the 17th century with the tides keeping the creek deep enough for sailing ships. Once salt hay farmers closed off the tides the creek began filling in.