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$2.9m in US aid brightens future of Great Marsh

The Ipswich Mills Dam, which once powered the town's many mills, is part of the Great Marsh Tour.

The Ipswich Mills Dam, which once powered the town's many mills, is part of the Great Marsh Tour.

A $2.94 million federal grant promises to give biologists and advocates a comprehensive way of addressing the problems in the Great Marsh and positioning the watershed for a healthier, stronger future.

Funding five major projects, the grant promises to restore and enhance the wetlands and dunes of the 20,000 acres of salt marsh, barrier beach, tidal river, estuary, mud flats, and upland islands running from Cape Ann to New Hampshire. It will also reduce the vulnerability of local municipalities to storms through restoration projects, assessments, and coastal resiliency plans.

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“Now we have some real money, so we can go after the Great Marsh holistically instead of just going after it in a piecemeal fashion, with funds from here, there, and everywhere,” said Peter Phippen, coastal resources coordinator for the Merrimack Valley Planning Commission and MassBays Estuary Program, who spearheaded the grant effort. “We . . . will make some significant efforts on a broad scale and instead of just in specific locations, one by one.’’

The National Wildlife Federation was the major recipient, and will work with several partners, some of whom are members of the Great Marsh Revitalization Task Force, to undertake the following:

 Dune nourishment and planting of native vegetation for reinforcement;

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 Native habitat restoration (including the planting of eelgrass) following the removal of invasive species;

 Assessment and prioritization of barriers that can affect river flow;

 Study of water-flow patterns and the movement of sediment;

 Storm resilience planning for six of the coastal communities in the Great Marsh: Salisbury, Newburyport, Newbury, Rowley, Ipswich, and Essex.

Phippen said one of the most important aspects of the work is being able to develop water-flow and sediment models, a computer-assisted process used to make predictions about what could happen to the entire system under various storm conditions.

The revitalization task force has “been searching for sources of funding for that for five or six years,’’ he said.

It’s too big for most grant programs, and the project itself is too complex to do in a piecemeal fashion, he said. The grant “is allowing us to do this as a complete model, from soup to nuts. So, we’ll be able to really look at why the salinities are changing, where they’re changing, and we can run some scenarios to see how we can change things.”

Salinity is important because it determines the habitat, and therefore what species can live in the marsh. In addition, water flow impacts how sediment moves through rivers and creeks and back to the beaches.

Phippen is working on several projects, including restoring salt marsh habitat through the elimination of invasive species such as pepperweed and phragmites australis, the common reed.

The money was awarded by the Department of the Interior from the $102 million Hurricane Sandy Coastal Resiliency Competitive Grant Program to the 12 states and District of Columbia that had officially declared natural disaster areas as a result of the storm. The grants are funding projects that assess, restore, enhance, or create natural systems to protect those areas from future storm damage.

“There’s increasing recognition that as these storms become more frequent and as their intensity increases, the federal government, state government, and local communities simply don’t have the resources to reconstruct and rebuild in the way we have historically,” said Chris Hilke, program manager for the Climate Adaptation Program in the northeast office of the National Wildlife Federation. “We have to begin to think proactively of more cost-effective ways to reduce risk.”

The risk-reduction strategies come with a bonus: The rebuilding and restoration of coastal habitat and natural ecosystems provide economic and other benefits, such as tourism, sport fishing, breeding habitat, and encouraging shellfish.

“Exploring these kinds of strategies is a no-brainer, and increasingly a necessity,” Hilke said.

With matching funds and in-kind contributions totaling $2.3 million, the value of the grant swells to $5.2 million.

The Ipswich River Watershed Association will work with the National Wildlife Federation to develop the best ways shorefront communities of the Great Marsh, from Essex to Salisbury, can adapt to climate change. The association will also assess how all the man-made barriers on the river system affect water flow.

“We’re going to be looking at every culvert, bridge, and causeway throughout the whole Great Marsh watershed, of which there are 1,500,” said Wayne Castonguay, executive director of the association. “We’re going to do an ecological assessment of each of those, and then evaluate them for failure risks from floods, and work with the municipalities on making those structures more resilient.”

Through another Sandy grant, the association is involved with the removal of the South Middleton Dam as well as a feasibility study for removing the Ipswich Mills Dam on the Ipswich River. That project, by the state Deptartment of Fish and Game’s Division of Ecological Restoration, will also include the removal of two aging dams in Andover, the Balmoral and the Stevens Street structures, which are the first and second dams from the ocean on the Shawsheen River.

While the projects can seem disjointed on paper and extend to 29 different communities, they are all linked by the watersheds.

“All of the environments that we’re going to be working in interplay with one another,” said Greg Moore, a University of New Hampshire professor who is working to restore sand dunes and to engage the community and stakeholders.

If barriers prevent sediment from getting to the rivers, and the rivers aren’t bringing sediments to the beaches, “then we don’t have materials to build dunes, and salt marshes, and everything else,’’ he said.

When a watershed landscape is viewed from above, Moore added, “you can see how connected they are. They’re all connected by water.”

David Rattigan’s e-mail is DRattigan.Globe@gmail.com.
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