MIDDLE TOWNSHIP — On Ring Island, outside Stone Harbor, there is muck ado about something.

It is the pumping of dredge spoils onto the shrinking marshes, a pilot program undertaken by the Department of Environmental Protection that is designed to help build up wetlands and create bird habitat.

“It’s a beneficial re-use of dredge material,” said Dave Golden, chief of the Bureau of Wildlife Management for New Jersey Fish & Wildlife. “The concept is to increase coastal elevation. Subsidence, coupled with sea-level rise, has made some of our marshes vulnerable, and they are becoming open water. We’re losing habitat because there is too much water for the vegetation to be healthy.”

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“Dredging the channels and the back bays of sediments and carting it off makes no sense,” said Lenore Tedesco, director of the Wetlands Institute, which has an unobstructed view of the dredging project taking place several hundred yards away. “This program is about keeping the material in the system. It shouldn’t be taken out of the system in the first place.”

Returning dredge spoils to the wetlands, whence they came, departs from the traditional method of storing the materials in a confined disposal facility (CDF), an option that is increasingly rare as state regulations become stricter. The lack of available space in CDFs has resulted in lagoons and back bays filling with silt, rendering them unnavigable at low tide, and has forced officials in coastal towns to seek alternatives to disposing of spoils.

This program could be the solution to that problem.

“We need to dredge,” Tedesco said. “There has been a dramatic change in the historic way we dispose of spoils. This project is kind of an elegant solution to the problem, taking what we don’t want in lagoons and putting it where it is needed.”

Following lead of other states

Although it is a first in this state, the program is not untested.

Hoping to replicate the success Louisiana and Delaware have had in rebuilding wetlands through the use of dredge spoils, New Jersey Fish & Wildlife, the Nature Conservancy and Green Trust Alliance partnered in obtaining a $3.4 million Hurricane Sandy Coastal Resiliency Grant from the Department of the Interior.

On Ring Island, the federal funds are being used to create a black skimmer nesting habitat, an area about 1 acre in size and 4 to 6 feet high at its center, and to spray a thin layer of material, between 3 and 6 inches deep, over a 2-acre area to increase its height.

The money also is earmarked for a 2-acre, thin-layer project this fall and a 45-acre, thin-layer project next fall, both in Avalon; and a 45-acre, thin-layer project in Fortescue, Cumberland County, next fall. A marsh-edge restoration project spanning between one-half and three-quarter miles also is planned to take place next fall in Avalon.

The locations for the pilot project were chosen for a variety of reasons, Golden said. The DEP selected areas owned and managed by the Division of Fish & Wildlife and in close proximity to active dredging projects for which the Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of Transportation had funding in place.

More than 7,000 cubic yards of material will be returned to the marsh at Ring Island, with 2,000 cubic yards being sprayed in a thin layer and 5,200 cubic yards being used to build nesting habitat for black skimmers, which are partial to sandy nesting grounds, Golden said. The three projects scheduled for Avalon will total 75,000 cubic yards, and the one in Fortescue will total 50,000 cubic yards, he said.

“We are taking all the dredge materials they want to get rid of and, depending upon toxicity testing and the size of the sand grains, using it all,” Golden said. “This project strives to keep clean sediment in the system to provide resiliency to the environment.”

Giving nature a fighting chance

“The marsh is drowning,” Tedesco said. “If this project works, it’s an opportunity for the marsh to rebound and keep up with sea-level rise. Because the marsh is flat, 6 inches can make a big difference.”

She said 1 acre of marsh can absorb 1 million gallons of water, making the wetlands an invaluable component of the seashore environment.

Golden said thin-layer application of sediments to the marsh can benefit plants by increasing elevation.

“Spraying the material on the marsh is one way to mimic accretion,” he said.

It also can benefit shorebirds that rely on the vegetation in the marsh for nesting sites. In addition to black skimmers, Tedesco named willets, clapper rails, laughing gulls and northern harriers as species that are threatened by loss of habitat.

“These birds nest on the marsh or just above it,” she said. “High tides can drown their nests and wipe them out.”

“This is an example of a species living on the edge,” said Golden, pointing to two laughing gull nests situated deep in grass on Ring Island as he walked across the mucky marsh to the dredging site.

Both Tedesco and Golden said neighbors had expressed concerns about the project, mostly stemming from a lack of information before the dredge arriving on site.

“It’s a short-term inconvenience for a long-term impact,” Tedesco said. “The neighbors are going to have a front-row seat to a fantastic bird habitat and healthy marshes once this is done.”

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