Weathering the Storm by Restoring a Native Grass

In October 2012, Superstorm Sandy hit New York, causing severe damage on the Atlantic and Long Island coasts. The strength of the storm highlighted the importance of storm readiness. In one park on Long Island, the storm also brought an opportunity for habitat restoration.

Sunken Meadow State Park is located on the north shore of Long Island, and contains the Sunken Meadow Creek, which flows into the Long Island Sound. The park is over 1,000 acres and includes important coastal habitats including coastal forest, low salt marsh, marine eelgrass, tidal creek, and maritime dunes.

When Sandy struck, it destroyed a berm (a wall made of earth) that State Parks constructed in the 1950s. Ever since it was built, the culverts through the berm were inadequate and greatly reduced tidal flow to Sunken Meadow Creek, decreasing the quality of the habitat upstream. Rather than rebuild the berm, a plan was set in motion to restore the tidal marshland by replacing the berm with a bridge and planting saltmarsh species.

Sunken Meadow Creek after Sandy with photo credits
The remnants of the berm in Sunken Meadow Creek after its destruction by Superstorm Sandy in 2012.

Even before Sandy struck, many partners had joined with State Parks to restore the habitat, including NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), Connecticut Fund for the Environment, Save the Sound, Long Island Sound Study, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Restore America’s Estuaries, Sea Grant New York, US Fish and Wildlife Service, The Nature Conservancy, and the Louis Berger Group. The New York Natural Heritage Program provided valuable information to help guide the restoration. The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation provided the funding.

With the removal of the berm came the return of tidal flow (a range of 2-3 feet per tidal cycle), and the gradual natural restoration of 135 acres of tidal creek and salt marsh habitat. Common reed (Phragmites australis) – an invasive plant with low tolerance for salt – had been a problem upstream of the berm, but the return of salty water cleared away much of this undesirable species. Once the common reed was gone, a three-acre area of mudflats was exposed, which the partners identified as an ideal location for marsh restoration work.

Mudflats 2013 with photo credits
xposed mudflats in 2013, one year after Superstorm Sandy, looking toward the pedestrian bridge.

The partners and volunteers teamed up to plant the mudflats with smooth cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora). Thanks to the roots of this native saltmarsh species, this section of the creek is now more resilient in the face of erosion and flooding that storms can bring. (Want to see how plants slow down erosion? Try this fun home experiment!) The restoration will also improve habitat for fish, macro-invertebrates (like fiddler crabs), and birds, providing them with space to forage and reproduce.

Mudflats 2017_with photo credit
View of mudflats looking toward bridge in 2017, two years after restoration planting of smooth cordgrass. You can see the remnants of the fencing put up to protect the young grass plants from being eaten by geese – these posts will be removed in the coming months.

The site continues to be monitored for the success of the plants. State Parks staff will also observe changes in the marsh elevation using Surface Elevation Table monitoring stations (SETs), which were installed in the restoration site and a control site downstream.  The elevation of the marsh surface may change in the future as mud is washed up and sea level rises. To learn more about SETs and how they are used, click here.

DEC staffers with photo credit

To learn more about the tidal creek and salt marsh habitat at Sunken Meadow State Park, check out some of our educational programs! NYS Parks works with local schools to engage students in citizen-scientist projects. A seasonal intern leads nature walks and uses the mobile touch tank to share the tidal world with park patrons. Sunken Meadow also participates in the “A Day in the Life of the Nissequogue River” program, which you can learn more about here.

To find out more about programs available at Sunken Meadow State Park, check the calendar.

Post by Juliana Quant, State Parks

Sources

Connecticut Fund for the Environment, 2013. Sunken Meadow Comprehensive Resilience and Restoration Plan. National Fish and Wildlife Foundation – Hurricane Sandy Coastal Resiliency Competitive Grants. EasyGrantsIS: 42442.

Hurricane Sandy

More details on the Sunken Meadow State Park restoration project from Save the Sound

2 thoughts on “Weathering the Storm by Restoring a Native Grass”

    1. Good question; common weed out competes native plants like cattail, native wetland orchards, and cordgrass. It provides limited food and shelter to wildlife and changes how water is stored in wetlands. Common reed grows in dense stands and is spread by both the roots and the seeds.

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