- Lauren Healey
Marsh Restoration as Climate Change Adaptation
I throw my clipboard across the surface of the marsh, make sure my phone is secured in a ziplock bag and get a running start. I jump yet another ditch in the marsh. Slowly, we are beginning to understand that the marsh did not always look like it currently does, scarred by ditches that criss-cross, swirl and grid the marsh.
An example ditch. Photo Credits: Jesse Costa/WBUR
First came the farmers. Salt marsh haying used to be a huge part of the economy in the 1800’s. Hundreds of ditches were dug to help drain water off the marsh which helped salt marsh hay grow. It has a sweet scent and a fluffy, cowlick appearance that makes you want to lie down and take a nap.
As the industrial revolution began cranking up, folks hustled into the city and left their farms. With mosquito borne illnesses looming in the public’s mind, mosquito control looked to themarshes. The marshes had long been thought of as mosquito rearing grounds. Mosquito control began to put in their own ditches to destroy mosquito habitat.
Partway through the development of mosquito control ditches, came the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC). Putting people back to work became paramount. At this time marshes were still seen as mosquito infested wastes of space. What better way to put people to work than build ditches in the marsh? This new iteration of ditches was sporadic, random and very, very abundant.
As the economy began to pick up again the WPA project was abandoned, and so were the ditches. Without maintenance from the farmers, mosquito control, or the WPA, the ditches began to clog up. In hopes of eliminating the ditches, mosquito control added plugs made of sediment along the ditches. Unfortunately, this caused large pools to form on the marsh. In essence, the marsh was holding more water than it used to. These extra pools become a problem in the context of sea level rise and climate change. The Great Marsh is responsible for protecting hundreds of towns and thousands of people from storms, flooding, and pollution. If the marsh is already wet, it has a lower ability to absorb more water from storms, weakening its ability to provide flood protection.
An example of the large pools that have formed due to plugged ditches. Photo Credits USFWS
This is where I fit in. I have recently begun a job, post-graduation, with the Fish and Wildlife Service at the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge. As I look at my classmates, many of whom are floundering for jobs, I recognize again the impact GOMI has had on my life. Three years ago I had a summer internship through GOMI at the same exact refuge. I absolutely loved it and I was able to build a strong career network and test out whether I liked the field of wildlife biology. Through the background knowledge and hands-on experience I gained at GOMI, I feel capable and confident in my new job.
My job now is to help heal the marsh from the ditches. To do this, the biology team at the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, along with Geoff Wilson of Northeast Wetland Restoration, has been slowly removing plugs and re-channelizing the ditches so they follow natural water patterns. This will hopefully allow the pools to drain and will enable the ditches to maintain themselves. This is just one example of how the Great Marsh communities are using local strategies to become more resilient to sea level rise.
Geoff Wilson removing ditch plugs. Photo Credits Jesse Costa/WBUR
Lauren is a recent graduate of the University of Massachusetts Amherst where she studied Natural Resource Conservation with a special focus on vegetated rooftops. During high school she completed a summer internship at the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge through the GOMI partnership. Due to her experience at the Refuge in the past, she began working there full time in May as a biological technician. A few of her duties include coordinating invasive species work, leading outreach events, and conducting vegetation surveys.