Community activists work together to improve Great Marsh, MA storm resiliency

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By Teresa Liu

In 2012, Hurricane Sandy tore through communities along the East Coast; in its trail numerous power lines were toppled, thousands of homes were destroyed, and at least 149 people were killed. Often cited as the second costliest tropical cyclone in the U.S. history, the “Frankenstorm” caused billions of dollars in damages and left people wondering what could have been done to reduce the risk of coastal communities from future storm surges.

“What we are trying to do is proactively look for opportunities to invest in natural systems as one approach to reducing reconstruction costs down the road,” said Chris Hilke, senior manager of the Conservation Science and Climate Adaption Program at National Wildlife Federation’s Northeast Regional Center.

Hilke is working with a cross-sector team of government officials, conservation experts and local residents to enhance the resiliency of the Great Marsh. This multi-faceted project will improve the health of the marsh so it better protects communities from future storms and saves the government millions of dollars in return, Hilke said.

“I think there is a really important big picture component to it, and that is we have so much vulnerable infrastructure on the East Coast,” he said. “You look at Boston, and New York City, and costs associated with rebuilding after hurricanes is not sustainable (in the) long-term.”

The project, which began in 2014, was made possible through a $2.9 million grant from the Department of Interior. It is part of the Hurricane Sandy Resiliency Grant Program funded by the federal agency and administered by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to help coastal communities better fend against future storms.

The Great Marsh, which spans 20,000 acres, extends from Cape Ann to the New Hampshire border. This unique wetland ecosystem shelters rare species like the roseate tern and piping plover, and nurses a variety of commercially viable fish and shellfish. But most importantly, the Great Marsh protects communities and wildlife by acting as a buffer zone against storms.

Although the Great Marsh is not as heavily degraded as some of its counterparts in New Jersey, it is still vulnerable to storms. Just last year, a combination of three winter storms washed away 30 feet of dunes in some areas of the marsh, Hilke said.

That is where the restoration component of the project comes in. Restoring coastal dunes, marsh and eelgrass, the three habitats important to the area’s wildlife, will also stabilize soil and reduce erosion.

Peter Phippen, a project leader and the coastal coordinator for the Great Marsh region of the Massachusetts Bays National Estuary Program, said the initiative focuses on the removal of two invasive plants: perennial pepperweed and common reed, and the re-colonization of native marsh vegetations.

“Native marsh vegetation is better able to provide resiliency. It’s also a habitat that is much more attractive, and provides resiliency to the communities around it,” said Phippen, who oversees restoration and enhancement activities for the project.

Project leaders are also monitoring and removing populations of green crabs, the culprit in the disappearance of eelgrass and erosion of marsh banks.

“We are trying to find a (culinary) market for them, so the green crabs could be controlled through supply and demand,” Phippen said.

But what really makes this project stand out is that it merges an unprecedented group of people from all walks of life to develop a roadmap for future implementation of co-benefit strategies. This initiative is the basis for the community coastal resiliency planning component of the project.

The component focuses mainly on the six coastal towns abutting the Great Marsh: Essex, Ipswich, Rowley, Newbury, Newbury Port and Salisbury. It allows community members to identify vulnerable infrastructure in their towns and draft plans to enhance them through a nature-based approach.

Geoffrey Walker, chairman of the Board of Selectmen at the Town of Newbury who is also a project liaison, said the communities where the project are based on are built on rivers, so they are susceptible to flood events caused by the ocean.

“If the Great Marsh was lost, then the ocean would be right next to the upland area; it would be more susceptible to wave impacts and everything else,” Walker said.

He said the Sandy grant is very effective in that it sets up workshops, which facilitates leaders and residents from the six towns to gather and gain a better understanding of how to address future challenges.

The project’s emphasis on a holistic approach could serve as a national model to address coastal resiliency, said Hilke.

“Coastal systems are at the nexus of a whole host of cross-cutting challenges; as a result, coastal adaptation needs to be addressed with an integrated and holistic approach,” Hilke said. “Moving forward, we need to address coastal adaption from a cross-sector perspective, and work with non-traditional partners to identify co-benefit approaches.”