Reviving a River
By Bruce Carlisle and Tim Smith, CZM's Wetlands Restoration Program
For thousands of years, the Herring River in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, was a highly productive estuary. In its unaltered state, the river offered vast feeding and nursery habitat for many commercially important fish and shellfish, cycled nutrients and sediment to provide clear water, produced salt hay for animal fodder, and buffered storm surges. The river was so productive, in fact, that in the 1890s, the catch of alewives and blue back herring averaged more than $640 per year (or about $13,000 in today's dollars), enough to pay all of the Town's elected officials, according to yearly town reports.
Since that time, however, human activities have had far-reaching effects on the river's natural function and social value. Throughout the 1800s and early 1900s, as the Cape became more developed, road and railroad dikes were built across the river's floodplain, bisecting the salt marshes and dramatically altering natural tidal patterns. Additionally, to create drier areas for agriculture and building, natural river and creek channels were straightened, ditches were dug, and dredged spoils were used to fill wetlands and floodplain areas.
The effects of this human disturbance were both dramatic and subtle. With the creation of the Chequesset Neck dike in 1908 (see photo left), species such as alewives, eels, striped bass, and silversides could no longer enter into the Herring River system, and the valuable herring run was severely impaired. By 1919, the value of the herring fishery was reduced to a mere $86 per year (or about $1,700 in today's dollar value). Over time, the thousands of acres of highly productive salt marsh gradually degraded and, by the middle of the 20th Century, the once thriving system had turned into brackish, freshwater, or upland vegetation, much of it dominated by the invasive common reed, Phragmites australis. The peat, which forms the foundation of a healthy salt marsh, is slowly decaying and so far has subsided nearly three feet lower than its historic elevation. Draining of the salt marsh peat has led to serious water quality problems. Lacking seawater and exposed to oxygen, naturally occurring sulfur in the peat is converted to sulfuric acid, at times causing the water in the Herring River to be as acidic as lemon juice, a condition that has led to many fish kills over the past several years. In addition, the acid causes toxic metals, primarily aluminum, to mobilize from the soil to the water column—a state that is serious enough to warrant the Herring River's placement on Massachusetts's List of Impaired Waters not meeting surface water quality standards.
In a coordinated effort to turn the tide for this estuary, the Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management's (CZM) Wetlands Restoration Program (WRP) is working with the National Park Service (NPS) and the town of Wellfleet to restore tides to the Herring River system. As agreed to in a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the town and NPS, CZM is a participant in a technical working group formed to advise Wellfleet on the merits of restoring tidal flow to the river and identifying the preferred means for doing so. The MOU also prescribed the creation of a committee to ensure that concerns of local landowners, fishermen, aquaculturists, and others are taken into consideration. Pending approval of the committee's recommendations by the Board of Selectmen, the technical committee will develop a comprehensive restoration plan for the river. Encompassing more than 1,000 acres of inter- and sub-tidal estuarine habitat, the project—if undertaken by Wellfleet—will be the largest and most ambitious wetland restoration project attempted in Massachusetts, if not the entire Northeast.
What It Could Be
The Herring River originates as a small stream at Herring Pond in north Wellfleet. As it flows southwestward, it gathers volume from groundwater. Where the river meets Wellfleet Harbor at Chequesset Neck, it is nearly 500 feet wide—one of the largest river mouths on Cape Cod. About 80 percent of the Herring River's floodplain is located within the Cape Cod National Seashore. Since the 1970s, NPS scientists and others have been studying the tide-restricted estuary to understand its current condition and the effects of restoring the tidal connection to Wellfleet Harbor. Research and modeling conducted or commissioned by the NPS show that a wider opening of the Chequesset dike would reintroduce enough seawater to re-saturate the peat, reduce production of sulfuric acid, and improve water quality. Restoring tidal influence to the Herring River would deliver marine sediments and the marsh surface will gradually rebound to self-sustaining elevations. Clams and oysters would return as salinity rises, and alewives and blue-back herring would once again migrate freely from Herring Pond to Cape Cod Bay.
In the 1960s, before anyone contemplated deliberately restoring tidal flow to the river, the one-way flapper valves in the Chequesset dike rusted and became stuck in a partly open position. For several years a limited amount of seawater returned to the diked system. The response was immediate and encouraging. With more saltwater, soft-shell clams and oysters eventually returned to the inter-tidal flats, some non-native Phragmites died off, and native salt marsh grasses came back. Though modest in scale and restricted to the area just above the dike, these incidental improvements were not unnoticed and soon salt marsh ecologists, local advocates, and NPS managers were advocating for additional tidal flow and a more cohesive and coordinated approach to restore the river.
Golf Balls and Mummichogs
As with any project of local and regional significance, returning tidal flow to the Herring River is not without its complexities. One of the largest challenges is the fate of several golf fairways belonging to Chequesset Yacht and Country Club (CYCC). Constructed in 1934 when the dike had significantly reduced the river's former tidal footprint, portions of five holes within the nine-hole course were built on what used to be salt marshes. Gradual subsidence of these areas has resulted in serious drainage problems, enough so that after heavy rains or with springtime high water tables, prolonged flooding makes it impossible to play golf. Returning the river's tidal flow would similarly inundate these low-lying areas during high tides. The WRP played an important role in addressing this challenge. Numerous federal, state, and private sector partners were brought together with the CYCC to discuss potential solutions. One of the early proposals to address the course flooding was to build a new, smaller dike at Mill Creek to protect the golf course. This concept was less than ideal, though, as impounded waters would have to be pumped over the dike, flooding would still occur after very heavy rains, costs would be high, and the dike would be detrimental to wetlands further up along Mill Creek.
After more meetings and discussions among the project partners, ideas for relocating part of the CYCC course began to take shape. The show of technical and financial support from the project partners was a critical factor in CYCC's decision to consider making drastic changes to their lands and golf course operations. With support from CZM, the Conservation Law Foundation, National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Gillette Company, and Massachusetts Corporate Wetlands Restoration Partnership, the CYCC is working with environmental and golf course design consultants to develop plans to reconfigure the golf course adjacent to undeveloped upland they own.
Through the partnership, a funding strategy was developed—CYCC will sell off about 25 acres of its low-laying lands to the town of Wellfleet. The money will go towards the construction and related costs of the course reconfiguration. As for the land, Wellfleet will create a publicly accessible conservation area. After restoration of tidal hydrology to the Herring River system, the abandoned fairways and greens will eventually return to salt marsh, providing critical habitat for mummichogs and alewives, soft-shell clams and fiddler crabs, and Snowy Egrets and Willets.
Open Space funds for a portion of this acquisition have already been approved at Wellfleet's Town Meeting. Additional matching funds are being sought from several other state and federal land acquisition programs. Through the tireless lobbying efforts of the Nature Conservancy, on November 10, 2005, Congressman William Delahunt (D-Massachusetts, 10th), along with Senators John Kerry (D-Massachusetts) and Edward Kennedy (D-Massachusetts) announced a $500,000 federal appropriation for the project through the Coastal and Estuarine Land Conservation Program. In his press release, Congressmen Delahunt said, "This is a political victory with potentially spectacular natural consequences. So often these days, we're forced to defend against assaults on the environment. It is gratifying to bring home some affirmatively good news about joint stewardship of public lands."
Work In Progress
Despite the clear ecological benefits of restoring tides to the Herring River, a range of public concerns still exist. These include the potential for sediments and bacteria to migrate to oyster growing areas and shellfish habitat in Wellfleet Harbor, possible erosion of the "Gut", saltwater intrusion of private water supply, flood impacts to several private residences within the Cape Cod National Seashore, and effects of saltwater on freshwater wetland and upland vegetation. The NPS and CZM have conducted numerous studies to address these issues in recent years, which are currently under review by the technical and public committees formed through the MOU and will form the basis for Wellfleet's decision to move ahead with the restoration.
While the vision of a healthy, free-flowing Herring River is coming into clearer focus, a great deal of work remains. Before the vision becomes reality, Wellfleet's Board of Selectmen must support the plan, a clear path to restoring tides must be developed, and substantial funds need to be raised. If the momentum, energy, and early successes of the restoration partnership can truly persevere, in a matter of several years, the Herring River will be on its way to its former glory and the people of Wellfleet, the Cape, the Commonwealth, and the Northeast will have reclaimed a true national treasure.