Protecting Delaware’s Coast

Millions of dollars have been spent by the state of Delaware restoring beach dune systems and coastal marshes. From recreational areas like boardwalks at Rehoboth and Bethany Beach, to the Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge, coastal resilience has become a top priority in the state.

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Red knots and a horseshoe crab in Delaware. Photo by Gregory Breese/USFWS;
Thanks in part to the investment in natural infrastructure like dunes and marsh systems, Delaware’s communities and habitats are afforded some protection from severe storms like the one that hit Delaware at the end of January

The winter of 2015-2016 was relatively mild until January 22, in which a record breaking winter nor’easter was predicted to hit the east coast from Virginia up to Connecticut. The heaviest snow would fall inland, but towns and wildlife refuges along the coast had another big problem to think about: flooding. The slow-moving storm was predicted to span at least 3 high tide cycles during a full moon, and bring along a 4 or 5 foot storm surge which did not bode well for coastal areas in Delaware and elsewhere in the Mid-Atlantic.

Dunes in Lewes, DE are gone after the winter storm, though the houses are intact. Photo by Amy Matarese
The storm arrived in the Mid-Atlantic on Friday night and didn’t stop until late Saturday. Delawareans living in beach communities dealt with the predicted flooding from the high tides and storm surge, watching their streets fill with seawater.

Sunday finally brought blue skies, and state officials including Governor Jack Markell, along with David Smalls, the Secretary of DNREC, flew along the coastline to survey the damage. While the dunes looked to be in pretty rough shape, both men expressed their amazement at how well the dunes and marshes protected human communities in the area. Said Gov. Markell, “[Without the marshes], I can’t imagine where all that water would be.”  Anthony Pratt, the state’s Shoreline and Waterway Administrator,  commented that the boardwalk at Bethany Beach would have been wiped out had it not been for the dunes.

While the officials were able to conclude that local communities were effectively protected from the worst of the storm’s effects by the dunes and marshes, they were not able to assess the impacts to one of the state’s most important wildlife habitats: the Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge (NWR). The Prime Hook NWR sits along the Atlantic Flyway and houses 4,000 acres of marsh habitat which provide important feeding, breeding, and resting grounds for migrating and over-wintering birds.

Prime Hook provides essential habitat for dozens of migrating bird species, breeding horseshoe crabs, foxes, and more. A $38 million marsh restoration project began in October 2015 and is currently vulnerable to a nor’easter like this one while under construction.

Project leaders are hoping no major storms come through the area anytime soon to allow for new marsh vegetation to take hold. Fortunately, it seems that the land and wildlife at the NWR were minimally impacted by the winter storm, so the first phase of the marsh restoration project is still on track as planned.

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Marsh restoration construction at Prime Hook NWR. Photo by Bart Wilson, USFWS
Strong storms like Hurricane Sandy and this winter nor’easter are going to increase in frequency and severity due to climate change. The National Wildlife Federation’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Center is currently leading several projects working with stakeholders across the Mid-Atlantic to help improve coastal resilience through the use of nature-based solutions such as marsh restoration, living shorelines and dune restoration. The benefits of these types of projects extend not only to the invaluable wildlife habitat, but also serve to protect nearby human communities.

Join NWF Help the National Wildlife Federation continue projects along the Mid-Atlantic coast.