CORBIN CITY — The water recently disappeared from six water holding areas in the state-owned Tuckahoe Wildlife Management Area, used for decades for fishing, crabbing, kayaking and duck hunting.
“This is drastic,” said Ron Meischker, of Somers Point, as he drove around what used to be large ponds in the northern end of the management area, the state’s largest at more than 17,000 acres.
The state Department of Environmental Protection announced last fall it was working with Ducks Unlimited and other groups to replace aging water-control structures in the impoundments, the system of dikes and raised roads that encircle the ponds.
But no one was prepared for the water to be gone, said Meischker, a founder of the Patcong Creek Foundation and its Assault on Patcong Creek crabbing contest.
The DEP’s Division of Fish and Wildlife lowered the water levels to benefit waterfowl, said spokesman Larry Hajna, and will soon raise them again.
Almost 950 acres of impoundments are affected, leaving most of the area as mudflats with thin ribbons of water around the edges.
Meischker said many people who use the area called him upset and concerned about what happened to the water. While the project is a valid one, he wishes the state would have paid more attention to informing the public.
“For an extra $100, they could have put signs up explaining to people why the water was not there,” he said.
Impoundments on the Upper Township side of the Tuckahoe Wildlife Management Area — formerly …
The DEP knows people have been using the area for crabbing, Hajna said, and will work to manage the area “for the enjoyment of all users, while maintaining its commitment to providing important habitat for migratory birds.”
Several impoundments will be refilled for the summer, and all will be full in the fall, he said.
The area is a key location on the Atlantic flyway, a route used by many birds migrating between their southern wintering areas and northern breeding grounds, Hajna said.
“Draining the impoundments in the spring creates mudflats rich in invertebrates that provide food that is essential to birds migrating as far north as Canada,” he said.
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The impoundments were built in the 1940s and designed by former division waterfowl biologist and Director Lester G. MacNamara to provide habitat for waterfowl, Hajna said. The management area was once named for MacNamara.
Over the years, water-control structures broke down and the water came and went. Mostly it stayed, creating large water bodies people in the community have used for generations, Meischker said.
“The public came to know this place for what it became, not for its original intention,” said Meischker, who has fished and crabbed there since he was a kid.
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“I think that people get used to things that gradually evolve, and then they expect that they will stay the same,” said Fred Akers, the river administrator who runs both the Great Egg Harbor River Council and the nonprofit Great Egg Harbor Watershed Association. “But when all of a sudden things change and they don’t know why, they get concerned.”
He, too, got calls from concerned outdoors enthusiasts.
“When the state makes or allows big landscape changes to popular public open space, they should provide more information to the public about the changes,” Akers said.
The work was done with a $1 million grant from the North American Wetlands Conservation Act, according to the DEP.
Kevin Stupp, southern zone chairman for New Jersey Ducks Unlimited, said in an email the group also raised another $1 million in matching funds.
The Division of Fish and Wildlife worked with Ducks Unlimited, Cape May County Mosquito Control, the Nature Conservancy and the state Green Acres Program on the project.
The project will help bring back ducks in the numbers seen historically when the impoundments’ water levels were managed, Division of Fish and Wildlife assistant biologist Lisa Clark said in a video produced by the state and posted to the Ducks Unlimited website.
“It will bring a lot more hunting opportunities to our area,” Clark said in the video.
But in 40 years, the impoundments have become more than just waterfowl habitat, Meischker said.
“It is turtle, fish and crab habitat. Now there’s nothing here (for the other species),” he said.