East Lyme program touts benefits of salt marshes for people, wildlife

East Lyme - Salt marshes are not only home to a variety of creatures and wildlife, but are also important to humans by buffering storms and floods.

That was one of the messages last week at a lecture on salt marshes at East Lyme High School that was sponsored by the East Lyme and Niantic Land Conservation Trust.

The event, attended by about 100 people, including students from local high schools, highlighted both current research on salt marshes and the need for communities to consider potential changes to their landscape while planning for the future.

Tidal marshes, the grassy wetlands between water and land, are one of the most productive ecosystems on earth and play a critical role in the food chain of estuaries, said Margaret Van Patten, the communications director for Connecticut Sea Grant at the Avery Point campus of the University of Connecticut in Groton.

The marshes, comprised of bands of different grass types at various stages of elevation from the water, produce oxygen and promote water quality by filtering out excess nitrogen, among other benefits, she said.

But the salt marshes have been up against threats, particularly from 1920 to 1970 when coastal development changes to hydrology - such as ditching and the placement of culverts - destroyed many marshes.

"They've been here for 4,000 years, but we've lost a lot of them," said Van Patten. In addition, the marshes are facing climate change and rising sea levels, she said.

Van Patten presented various projects to restore sea marshes that have yielded promise. For example, the installation of plugs to restore ditched marshes in Old Lyme yielded the return of marsh grasses after a year.

"There's a lot of interest in restoring marshes, but it has to be done just right," she explained.

Chris Field, a graduate student in ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Connecticut, next presented research on the salt marsh sparrow of New England and the mid-Atlantic states, which depends on marshes for part of the year and could go extinct around 2050 to 2060 because of rising sea levels.

Field is also working with a team that is conducting research on the role trees play in hindering the migration of marshes during rising sea levels.

Adam Whelchel, the director of science for the Connecticut Chapter of the Nature Conservancy, said the conservancy works with coastal communities to raise awareness, identify risks and formulate a plan for coastal resiliency, he said.

He encouraged people to consider not only the wetlands' habitats and their aesthetic value, but to start to think of the ways they protect communities and provide defense to reduce the effects of storms and the longer-term impacts of continued sea level rise.

He said salt marshes could potentially move inland, as sea levels are projected to rise in the future. He said the town should consider the potential advancement of salt marsh areas in the future and be "aware of the kind of trade-offs you make in terms of future development."

Drawing upon a study titled "A Salt Marsh Advancement Zone Assessment of East Lyme, Connecticut," he said the areas in town where salt marshes could advance include Rocky Neck State Park, as well as some areas along the Four Mile River, Bride Brook, the Pattagansett River, McCook Point Park, Smith Cove and Indian Pond. In the 2080s, marsh advancement could comprise 364 acres in East Lyme.

k.drelich@theday.com

Twitter: @KimberlyDrelich

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