Phragmites' last stand?

The state is in the early stages of a project that would restore tidal flow to a large section of degraded wetlands near the Higbee Beach Wildlife Management Area at the far southern end of Cape May County.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had originally proposed the project more than a decade ago but funding for it, about $2.9 million, was never authorized so the project never got to the construction phase.

The goal back then was to restore tidal flow to about 270 acres of the 417 acres in the marsh known as Pond Creek Meadow.

The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, using a fund collected from polluters, is now seeking to revive the project. Notices were send out this week to property owners along the marsh that some preliminary soil boring work will be done in the area. The Louis Berger Group, Inc. has been contracted to develop a conceptual design for the project.

“The Army Corps is out of the picture now. We’re just doing it on our own,” said DEP spokesman Larry Hajna.

The DEP’s Office of Natural Resource Restoration will lead the effort using funds paid by parties that damage natural resources. Hajna said mapping of wetlands and wetlands buffers has already been done. The soil borings are the next step before final designs for the project are drafted.

The marsh was originally tidal as an 1888 map shows a channel connecting it to the Delaware Bay. Saltwater was blocked off in 1917 by the Cape May County Mosquito Extermination Commission to combat the salt marsh mosquito.

The marsh initially converted to a freshwater system dominated by cattails, a beneficial plant, but in recent decades it has been overrun by an invasive marsh reed from Asia called Phragmites australis. Also called the foxtail reed, Phragmites have been blamed for reducing biological diversity, creating a fire hazard, and, because of its density, limiting human uses of the area such as hunting, fishing and wildlife observation.

In an ironic twist, the effort to combat one mosquito nuisance ended up introducing another, the cattail mosquito, which thrives in Phragmites.

Tidal flow, and the right elevations, would kill the Phragmites and restore saltmarsh vegetation such as smooth cord grass, salt hay grass, and spike grass that would cater to egrets, herons, shorebirds, waterfowl, diamondback terrapins and wildlife.

The number of fish species would also skyrocket and dissolved oxygen levels would improve. Regular tidal flushing should clear out marsh muck, reportedly as thick as 10 feet is some places, that has led anaerobic conditions.

“We’re trying to initiate a project to provide a more natural habitat you’d find prior to disturbance,” said Hajna.

The site was also heavily disturbed by the former Harbison-Walker Magnesite Plant that operated there from World War II until the 1980’s. The plant extracted minerals from Delaware Bay waters. This area, on uplands south of the meadow, could also see some restoration work.

“The operation there left the soil barren and acidic. We need to do a chemical analysis to see what it would take to restore the area,” Hajna said.

The Army Corps proposal years ago had drawn concern from residents and elected officials worried the saltwater would extend to residential areas, killing trees and threatening wells. There are some houses along with farms, wineries, horseback riding stables and other uses on the edges of the marsh. While the final plan is not out yet, preliminary work shows berms would be used to prevent the saltwater from getting to those areas.

Jennifer Brunton of the Louis Berger Group said the project includes water control structures and a mandate is not to increase flooding risks for neighbors.

“The project will have to adhere to DEP regulations, which require we don’t increase flooding,” said Brunton.

There will be a chance for public comment as the project moves forward.

The project is directly across the street from the borough of Cape May Point, where Deputy Mayor Anita van Heeswyk is keeping an eye on the plans.

“We’re aware of this and we’re looking at it carefully to make sure Cape May Point is well protected,” said van Heeswyk.

She noted since the Magnesite Plant closed there have been other uses proposed for the site including housing developments and a trash incinerator. While not yet seeing the final plans, van Heesyck said uses for the site

“could be worse” and the DEP plan “could be beautiful.”

David Mizrahi, director of research at the New Jersey Audubon Society, said one concern is losing freshwater wetlands along the Delaware Bay even if they are degraded by Phagmites. He noted there is wildlife that uses the meadow that would be displaced.

“Freshwater marshland is one of the rarest habitat types in the region and the state. Losing that to tidal flow needs to be evaluated with that in mind. We have quite a lot of salt marshes on the bayshore,” Mizrahi said.

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