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Connecticut’s new estuary reserve protects Long Island Sound wetlands in Groton’s backyard

Courtesy The Nature Conservancy in Connecticut
The Connecticut National Estuarine Research Reserve map includes, from 1 to 7, the Lord Cove Preserve, the state marine district headquarters and the Roger Tory Peterson Preserve on the Connecticut River in Old Lyme, as well as UConn Avery Point, Bluff Point, Haley Farm and Pine Island near the Thames River in Groton.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has selected estuaries and their surrounding wetlands between Old Lyme and Groton in southeastern Connecticut for preservation and research. The new reserve is the 30th in the national reserve system and the first in Connecticut.

The preserve will help address the challenges facing this patchwork of state and privately owned coastal properties between the Connecticut and Thames rivers, said Chantal Collier, director of marine systems conservation at The Nature Conservancy in Connecticut. The environmental group worked with state environmentalists, the University of Connecticut and the NOAA to bring this new level of protection to Long Island Sound.

“It’s really important to not only protect these ecosystems, but there'll be opportunities to better understand their role in climate change, and to conduct restoration activities to enhance their ability to mitigate climate change — and better protect the communities that depend on these resources from storms and flooding,” Collier said.

Extreme weather, sea level rise and erosion intensified by climate change this century continues to carve away America’s wetlands. In 1972, Congress created the National Estuarine Research Reserve System to monitor and protect coastal environments from habitat loss due to climate change and human activity.

Other local reserves include the Hudson River estuary in New York, Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island and Waquoit Bay in Massachusetts.

“The designation of the nation’s 30th National Estuarine Research Reserve in Connecticut represents a win for science-based decision making and helping to enhance environmental education at all levels for the people of Connecticut,” Governor Ned Lamont said in a statement. “Some of our state parks and natural area preserves will be utilized as a ‘living laboratory’ that can help advance national efforts in addressing issues such as climate change and environmental stewardship now and in the future.”

Courtesy Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection
The salt marsh, creeks and tidal flats at the Roger Tory Peterson Natural Area Preserve in the lower Connecticut River.

The power of a reserve

Under Connecticut’s designation, NOAA will provide guidance and about $1 million in funding each year to the reserve, while the state, universities and local partners will manage the estuaries day-to-day from offices headquartered on the UConn Avery Point campus.

The reserve will also jump start a regional coastal management plan, and sustain the benefits the estuaries bring to local communities, said Frank Bohlen, professor emeritus in marine sciences at UConn.

“We're going into the education mode, because we believe that there is educating to be done,” said Bohlen, a resident of Groton, where much of the coastline will be monitored by the reserve system.

He described his hometown as rich with coastal forests and grasslands, salt marshes, beaches and bluffs and seagrass meadows.

The new reserve is home to more than 1,200 species of bugs and marine life, including 120 species of fish and nearly 50 species considered endangered by the state, including piping plover, horseshoe crabs, seals, sea turtles, dolphins and whales.

“As a kid growing up around this neck of the woods, New England, and as a sailor, I very seldom saw one inch of rain in a day. Well, it's much more common for us to see over a few days, inches of rain now,” Bohlen said. “We routinely fished for a variety of species in Long Island Sound that are no longer all that common.”

“And those low docks [at Ram Island Yacht Club] have been raised twice in 30 years. Sea level is obviously encroaching slowly but surely,” he added.

Marshlands provide local communities a natural barrier against the impacts of climate change. Salt marshes, seagrass meadows and coastal forests help capture carbon dioxide from the air and sequester it in their soils. Wetlands also help to dampen the force of waves during storms. In addition, they can reduce coastal erosion by capturing and stabilizing the ground.

According to the Long Island Sound Study, the Sound generates over $9 billion in revenue for the region. In addition to recreational fishing and outdoors activity. The Sound is also expected to rise up to 20 inches by 2050, the multistate report said.

The Connecticut Sea Level Rise and Storm Surge Viewer, by the University of Connecticut, visualizes data from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and shows different flood maps with sea-level rise projections, up to 1 foot and 20 inches. 

“We have clear indications of effects here with us right now,” Bohlen said. “We don't have to wait until 2050.”

A boon to Groton’s environmental stewardship

Bohlen is also a member of his town’s climate resiliency task force. Last year, Groton approved a resolution to make climate change a key factor when creating town policies.

Connecticut’s first national reserve system would offer training opportunities for municipalities on how to best manage their coastlines. The system can also offer school programs that would engage students and teachers in hands-on science. The designation, as a “living laboratory,” will encourage scientific research without bringing any new restrictions to fishing or boating to the area.

“Climate change is going to change the way we live. People have spent the last 20 years talking about it. And the response from the government has been, we'll study it more,” said Zell Steever, chairman of the Groton Resiliency and Sustainability Task Force. “We looked at those studies. We've got them in town; they're on the shelves. And by and large, only a few things have been enacted — a lot of things have not been enacted.”

The Groton task force welcomes the national reserve system designation, but they are still worried. A future storm could wipe out most of the town’s tax base located on the waterfront.

“You put that together for the town of Groton with a fair amount of low lying land,” said Bohlen, the UConn marine scientist. “There are concerns, the combination of higher intensity storms and increasing sea level really has to be taken into account in planning in the town of Groton.”

They point to an example at Bluff Point State Park, where the town had removed buildings from the beach after they were reduced to rubble by repeated storms. “The place was just turned over to Mother Nature,” Steever said.

“There is this perceived reality gap, I guess. People believe that happened ‘back then,” he said, referring to the region’s long-history of destructive storms. “But we live today in a clear and present danger.”

He points to recent flooding from recent storms, like hurricanes Henri, Elsa and the remnants of Ida last year. Steever said action needs to be taken on a state and local level to protect the environment — and Groton.

“It starts at home,” he said. “My motivation is, I spent a good portion of my career working on these issues. And I have four sons and six grandkids. They're likely to experience a not so nice place to live.”

A native Long Islander, J.D. is WSHU's managing editor. He also hosts the climate podcast Higher Ground. J.D. reports for public radio stations across the Northeast, is a journalism educator and proud SPJ member.