NOAA's Response and Restoration Blog

An inside look at the science of cleaning up and fixing the mess of marine pollution


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10 Years after Being Hit by Hurricane Katrina, Seeing an Oiled Marsh at the Center of an Experiment in Oil Cleanup

This is a post by Vicki Loe and Amy Merten of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration.

Oil tank damaged during Hurricane Katrina.

During Hurricane Katrina in 2005, one of the Chevron oil terminal’s storage tanks was severely damaged on top, possibly after being hit by something extremely large carried by the storm waters. (NOAA)

On August 29, 2005, not far from Chevron Pipe Line Company’s oil terminal in Buras, Louisiana, Hurricane Katrina made landfall. Knowing the storm was approaching, residents left the area, and Chevron shut down the crude oil terminal, evacuating all personnel.

The massive storm’s 144 mile per hour winds, 18 foot storm tide, and waves likely twice the height of the surge put the terminal under water. At some point during the storm, one of the terminal’s storage tanks was severely damaged on top, possibly after being hit by something extremely large carried by the storm waters. The tank released crude oil into an adjacent retention pond designed to catch leaking oil, which it did successfully.

However, just a few short weeks later, Hurricane Rita hit the same part of the Gulf and the same oil terminal. Much of the spilled oil was still being contained on the retention pond’s surface, and this second hurricane washed the oil into a nearby marsh.

A Double Impact

Built in 1963, Chevron’s facility in Buras is one of the largest crude oil distribution centers in the world and is located on a natural levee on the east bank of the Mississippi River. These back-to-back hurricanes destroyed infrastructure at the terminal as well as in the communities surrounding it. Helicopter was the only way to access the area in the weeks that followed.

Chevron wildlife biologist and environmental engineer Jim Myers witnessed the storms’ aftermath at the terminal. He described trees stripped of leaves, and mud and debris strewn everywhere, including power lines. Dead livestock were found lying on the terminal’s dock. And black oil was trapped in the marsh’s thick mesh of sedge and grass. This particular marsh is part of a large and valuable ecosystem where saltwater from the Gulf of Mexico and freshwater from the Mississippi River come together.

Even after using boom and skimmers to remove some oil, an estimated 4,000 gallons of oil remained in the 50 acre marsh on the back side of the terminal. Delicate and unstable, marshes are notoriously difficult places to deal with oil. The chaos of two hurricanes only complicated the situation.

Decision Time

Once the terminal’s substantial cleanup and repair activities began, an environmental team was assembled to consider options for dealing with the oiled marsh. Dr. Amy Merten and others from NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, Jim Myers and others from Chevron, and personnel from the U.S. Coast Guard, Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service rounded out this team.

The team considered several options for treating the marsh, but one leapt to the top of the list: burning off the oil, a procedure known as in situ burn. In situ burning was the best option for several reasons: the density and amount of remaining oil, remote location, weather conditions, absence of normal wildlife populations after the storms, and the fact that the marsh was bound on three sides by canals, creating barriers for the fire. Also, for hundreds of years, the area had seen both natural burns (due to lightning strikes) and prescribed burns, with good results.

Yet this recommendation met some initial resistance. In situ burning was a more familiar practice for removing oil from the open ocean than from marshes, though its use in marshes had been well-reviewed in scientific studies. Still, in the midst of a hectic and widespread response following two hurricanes, burning oil out of marshes seemed like a potentially risky move at the time.

Furthermore, some responders working elsewhere followed conventional wisdom that the oil had been exposed to weathering processes for too long to burn successfully. However, the oil was so thick on the water’s surface and so protected from the elements by vegetation that the month-old oil behaved like freshly spilled oil, meaning it still contained enough of the right compounds to burn. The environmental team tested the oil to demonstrate it would burn before bringing the idea to those in charge of the post-hurricane pollution cleanup, the Unified Command.

Burn Notice

Left: Burning marsh. Right: Same view of green marsh 10 years later.

Similar views of the same marsh where the 2005 oil spill and subsequent burn occurred after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The view on the right is from August of 2015. (NOAA)

Fortunately, the leader of the Unified Command approved the carefully crafted plan to burn the oiled marsh. The burns took place on October 12 and 13, 2005, a month and a half after the spill. After dividing and cutting the affected marsh into a grid of six plots, responders burned two areas each day, leaving two plots unburned since they were negligibly oiled and did not have the right conditions to burn.

Lit with propane torches, the fire on the first day was dramatic, generating dense black smoke and burning for three hours, the result of burning the part of the marsh closest to the terminal, where the oil was thickest. The second fire generated less smoke but burned longer, for about four and half hours. Afterward, you could see how the burn’s footprint matched where different levels of oil had been.

Observations after the fact assured the environmental team that most (more than 90 percent) of the oil had been burned in the four treated areas. Small pockets of unburned oil were collected with sorbent pads, and any residual oil was left to degrade naturally. Within 24 hours of burning, traces of regrowth were visible in the marsh, and in less than a month, sedge grasses had grown to a height of one to two feet, according to Myers.

A Marsh Reborn

Healthy lush marsh vegetation at water's edge.

The marsh that was oiled after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, and subsequently burned to remove the oil. This is how it looked in August of 2015, showing an abundance of diverse vegetation. (NOAA)

Ten years later, in August of 2015, I was curious to see how the marsh had come back. I had seen many photos of during and after the burn, and subsequent reports were that the endeavor had been a great success.

Knowing I would be in the New Orleans area on vacation, I was pleased to learn that Jim Myers would be willing to give me a tour of this marsh. I met him at the ferry dock to cross to the east side of the Mississippi River and the Chevron terminal.

We looked out over the marsh from an elevated platform behind the giant oil storage tanks. All you could see were lush grasses, clumps of low trees, and birds, birds, birds. Their calls were nonstop. We saw cattails uprooted next to flattened paths leading to the water’s edge, evidence of alligators creating trails from the water to areas for basking in the sun and of cows, muskrats, and feral hogs feeding on the cattails’ roots.

The water level was high, so rather than hike through the marsh, we traveled the circumference in a flat-bottomed boat. We saw many species of birds, as well as dragonflies, freely roaming cows, fish, and an alligator.

Today, the marsh is flourishing. I could see no difference between the areas that were oiled and burned 10 years ago and nearby areas that were untouched. In fact, monitoring following the burn [PDF] found that the marsh showed recovery across a number of measures within nine months.

This marsh represents one small part of a system of wetlands that has historically provided a buffer against the high waters of past storms. Since the 1840s, when it was settled, Buras, Louisiana, has survived being hit by at least five major hurricanes. But Hurricane Katrina was different.

Gradually, marshes across the northern Gulf of Mexico have been disappearing, enabling Hurricane Katrina’s floodwaters to overwhelm areas that have weathered previous storms. Ensuring existing marshes remain healthy will be one part of a good defense strategy against the next big hurricane. Given the successful recovery of this marsh after both an oil spill and in situ burn, we know that this technique will help prevent the further degradation of marshes in the Gulf.

See more photos of the damaged tank, the controlled burn to remove the oil, and the recovered marsh 10 years later.

Find more information about the involvement of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Amy Merten with kids from Kivalina, Alaska.Amy Merten is the Spatial Data Branch Chief in NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration. Amy developed the concept for the online mapping tool ERMA (Environmental Response Mapping Application). ERMA was developed in collaboration with the University of New Hampshire. She expanded the ERMA team at NOAA to fill response and natural resource trustee responsibilities during the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Amy oversees data management of the resulting oil spill damage assessment. She received her doctorate and master’s degrees from the University of Maryland.


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Transforming Dusty Fields into Vibrant Salt Marshes in San Francisco Bay

Vibrant marsh with lots of ducks and trucks on the highway in the background.

Just after the Cullinan Ranch restoration site was re-flooded, huge flocks of waterfowl began using the marsh, including Canvasback, Scaup, Northern Pintail, Mallards, and American Wigeon. (Ducks Unlimited)

What happens when you fill a dry, dusty 1,200 acre field at the northern edge of San Francisco Bay with tide waters unseen in that place for more than a century?

You get a marsh with a brand new lease on life.

In January 2015, this is exactly what took place at the salt marsh restoration site called Cullinan Ranch (known as that due to its history as a hay farm).

Check out the photos taken of the restoration site in November 2013, after the new boat ramp and wildlife viewing platform were built but before the levees holding back the bay were breached, and compare them with those taken in the same spot in January 2015, after the waters returned.

Brackish waters once again cover the low-lying area, long pushed down below sea level due to farming dating back to the 1880s. The presence of salt water has transformed this arid field into tidal wetland habitat, where birds, fish, and wildlife, such as the endangered Ridgway’s rail, the salt marsh harvest mouse, steelhead, Chinook salmon, and other fish can thrive.

According to Ducks Unlimited biologist Craig Garner, whose organization has been a key player in this site’s restoration, “When the ranch was newly flooded, we saw a tremendous response by waterfowl. Large numbers of birds were recorded using the area, particularly Canvasback,” a species of diving duck.

Could it be that Cullinan Ranch provides California wildlife with a new refuge from the current scarcity of freshwater habitats further inland? Garner suggests, “Though it is tough to gauge without waterfowl survey data, I would say that Cullinan Ranch could be offsetting the effects of drought conditions on diving duck habitat at all” levels of the tidal cycle.

Of course, people will also be able to enjoy this transformation occurring at Cullinan Ranch via the new recreational facilities. (Launching your boat into a dry field probably wouldn’t be much fun, after all.)

But it’s not just fun and games. People will benefit from this renewed salt marsh acting as a natural filter, increasing the quality of the water passing through it on the way to the bay and its fisheries, and as a sponge for moderating flooding during storms. The plant life growing in the marsh also serves to capture and hold excess carbon dioxide from the nearby urban areas. In addition, taking out the 19th-century levees holding out the bay’s tides reduces the chances of a catastrophic failure and cuts out the expense of maintaining poorly built levees.

Watch as the last satisfying scoops of the muddy barrier disappear and salty waters rush in:

Excavator removing a dirt levee and allowing tide waters to rush into a dry marsh.

Taking out the first levee at the Cullinan Ranch marsh restoration project in central California in January 2015. (NOAA)

Learn more about the efforts to restore this tidal wetland and another long-dry area known as Breuner Marsh. Both of these restoration projects were made possible with funding from a natural resource damage assessment settlement paid by Chevron to make up for years of dumping mercury and oil pollution from its Richmond, California, refinery into the shallow waters of nearby Castro Cove. NOAA partnered with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to achieve the 2010 Chevron settlement and contribute to these two important restoration projects.

In the fall of 2014, Breuner Marsh also saw the return of its daily infusion of saltwater and is looking more and more like a natural salt marsh and less like the next site of urban development.

Aerial view of marsh with tide waters channeling across the shore.

An aerial view of the tide waters retaking their normal course at the restoration site Breuner Marsh on San Francisco Bay in the fall of 2014. (Castro Cove Natural Resource Damage Trustees)


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After a Century Apart, NOAA and Partners Reunite a Former Wetland with San Francisco Bay’s Tides

Excavator removing earth from a breached barrier between tide waters in a slough and the new wetland.

The first of four breaches of tidal levees separating Cullinan Ranch from the tide waters of San Francisco Bay. (NOAA)

Scooping away the last narrow band of mud, a bright yellow excavator released a rush of brackish water into an area cut off from the tides for more than a hundred years.

The 1,200 acre field now filling with water, known as Cullinan Ranch due to its history as a hay farm, is once again becoming a tidal wetland.

On January 6, 2015, more than 100 people celebrated the reintroduction of tide waters to Cullinan Ranch in Solano County, California. For decades before, earthen levees had separated it from the nearby Napa River and San Pablo Bay, a northern corner of the San Francisco Bay Estuary.

With three more levee breaches planned by the end of January, restoration of this 1,500 acre site is nearly complete, with efforts to monitor the project’s progress to follow. Surrounded by state and federal wildlife lands, Cullinan Ranch will fill in a gap in coastal habitat as it becomes integrated with San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

How Low Can It Flow

For the most part, Cullinan Ranch will be covered in open water because years of farming, beginning in the 1880s, caused the land to sink below sea level. The open water will provide places for animals such as fish and birds—as well as the invertebrates they like to eat—to find food and rest after big storms.

However, some areas of the property will remain above the low tide level, creating conditions for the plant pickleweed to thrive. While a succulent like cacti, pickleweed can survive wet and salty growing conditions. (Fun fact: Some people enjoy cooking and eating pickleweed. When blanched, it apparently tastes salty and somewhat crispy.) The salt marsh harvest mouse, native to California and one of the few mammals able to drink saltwater, also will take advantage of the habitat created by the pickleweed in the recovering wetland.

Wildlife will not be the only ones enjoying the restoration of Cullinan Ranch. A major highway passes by the site, and Cullinan Ranch has experienced numerous upgrades to improve recreational access for people brought there by Highway 37. Soon anyone will be able to hike on the newly constructed trails, fish off the pier, and launch kayaks from the dock.

Turning Money into Marshes

The restoration of Cullinan Ranch from hay field to tidal wetland has been in the works for a long time, brought about by a range of partners and funding agencies, including NOAA, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, California Wildlife Conservation Board, and Ducks Unlimited. NOAA provided several sources of funding to help finish this restoration project.

In addition to $900,000 from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, NOAA contributed $650,000 through a community-based restoration partnership with Ducks Unlimited and $1.65 million awarded for natural resource damages through the Castro Cove trustee council. The latter funding was part of a $2.65 million settlement with Chevron as a result of the nearby Chevron Richmond Refinery discharging mercury and oil pollution into Castro Cove for years. Cullinan Ranch and Breuner Marsh are the two restoration projects Chevron funded to make up for this pollution.

Map of San Francisco Bay showing locations of NOAA restoration projects.

NOAA is working on a number of tidal wetland restoration projects in the north San Francisco Bay. (NOAA)

Cullinan Ranch is one of the largest restoration projects in the north San Francisco Bay, but it is far from the only one NOAA is involved with in the region. Helping reverse a century-long trend which saw many of the bay’s tidal wetlands disappear, NOAA has been working on a suite of projects restoring these historic and important coastal features in northern California.

Watch footage of the earthen levee being breached to reconnect the bay’s tide waters to Cullinan Ranch.


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Out of Sandy, Lessons in Helping Coastal Marshes Recover from Storms

Cleanup workers scoop oil out of an oiled marsh with containment boom around the edges.

After Sandy’s flooding led to an oil spill at a Motiva refinery, Motiva cleanup workers extract oil from Smith Creek, a waterway connected to the Arthur Kill, in Woodbridge, New Jersey, on November 5, 2012. (NOAA)

Boats capsized in a sea of grass. Tall trees and power lines toppled over. A dark ring of oil rimming marsh grasses. This was the scene greeting NOAA’s Simeon Hahn and Carl Alderson a few days after Sandy’s floodwaters had pulled back from New Jersey in the fall of 2012.

They were surveying the extent of an oil spill in Woodbridge Creek, which is home to a NOAA restoration project and feeds into the Arthur Kill, a waterway separating New Jersey from New York’s Staten Island. When the massive storm known as Sandy passed through the area, its flooding lifted up a large oil storage tank at the Motiva Refinery in Sewaren, New Jersey. After the floodwaters set the tank back down, it caused roughly 336,000 gallons of diesel fuel to leak into the creek and surrounding wetlands.

That day, the NOAA team was there with Motiva and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to begin what can be a long and litigious process of determining environmental impacts, damages, and required restoration—the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process.

In this case, however, not only did the group reach a cooperative agreement—in less than six months—on a restoration plan for the oiled wetlands, but at another wetland affected by Sandy, NOAA gained insight into designing restoration projects better able to withstand the next big storm.

Cleaning up the Mess After a Hurricane

Hurricanes and other large storms cause a surprising number of oil and hazardous chemical spills along the coast. After Sandy hit New York and New Jersey, the U.S. Coast Guard began receiving reports of petroleum products, biodiesel, and other chemicals leaking into coastal waters from damaged refineries, breached petroleum storage tanks, and sunken and stranded vessels. The ruptured tank at the Motiva Refinery was just one of several oil spills after the storm, but the approach in the wake of the spill is what set it apart from many other oil spills.

“Early on we decided that we would work together,” reflected Hahn, Regional Resource Coordinator for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration. “There was a focus on doing the restoration rather than doing lengthy studies to quantify the injury.”

This approach was possible because Motiva agreed to pursue a cooperative Natural Resource Damage Assessment with New Jersey as the lead and with support from NOAA. This meant, for example, that up front, the company agreed to provide funding for assessing the environmental impacts and implementing the needed restoration, and agreed on and shared the data necessary to determine those impacts. This cooperative process resulted in a timely and cost-effective resolution, which allowed New Jersey and NOAA to transition to the restoration phase.

Reaching Restoration

Because of the early agreement with Motiva, NOAA and New Jersey DEP did not conduct exhaustive new studies detailing specific harm to these particular tidal wetlands. Instead, they turned to the wealth of data from the oil spill response and existing data from the Arthur Kill to make an accurate assessment of the oil’s impacts.

People driving small boats up a marshy river in winter.

A few days after the oil spill, Motiva’s contractors ferried the assessment team up Woodbridge Creek in New Jersey, looking for impacts from the oil. (NOAA)

From their shoreline, aerial, and boat surveys, they knew that the marsh itself had a bathtub ring of oil around the edge, affecting marsh grasses such as Spartina. No oiled wildlife turned up. However, the storm’s immediate impacts made it difficult to take water and sediment samples or directly examine potential effects to fish. Fortunately, the assessment team was able to use a lot of data from a nearby past oil spill and damage assessment in the Arthur Kill. In addition, they could rely on both general scientific research on oil spill toxicology and maps from the response team detailing the areas most heavily oiled.

Together, this created a picture of the environmental injuries the oil spill caused to Woodbridge Creek. Next, NOAA economists used the habitat equivalency analysis approach to calculate the amount of restoration needed to make up for these injuries: 1.23 acres of tidal wetlands. They then extrapolated how much it will cost to do this restoration based on seven restoration projects within a 50 mile radius, coming to $380,000 per acre. As a result, NOAA and New Jersey agreed that Motiva needed to provide $469,000 for saltwater marsh restoration and an additional $100,000 for monitoring, on top of Motiva’s cleanup costs for the spill itself.

To use this relatively small amount of money most efficiently, New Jersey DEP, as the lead agency, is planning to combine it with another, larger restoration project already in the works. While still negotiating which project that will be, the team has been eyeing a high-profile, 80-acre marsh restoration project practically in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty. Meanwhile, the monitoring project will take place upstream from the site of the Motiva oil spill at the 67-acre Woodbridge Creek Marsh, which received light to moderate oiling. NOAA already has data on the state of the animals and plants at this previously established restoration site, which will provide a rare comparison for before and after the oil spill.

Creating More Resilient Coasts

A storm as damaging as Sandy highlights the need for restoring wetlands. These natural buffers offer protection for human infrastructure, absorbing storm surge and shielding shorelines from wind and waves. Yet natural resource managers are still learning how to replicate nature’s designs, especially in urban areas where river channels often have been straightened and adjoining wetlands filled and replaced with shorelines armored by concrete riprap.

To the south in Philadelphia, Sandy contributed to significant erosion at a restored tidal marsh and shoreline at Lardner’s Point Park, located on the Delaware River. This storm revealed that shoreline restoration techniques which dampen wave energy before it hits the shore would help protect restored habitat and reduce erosion and scouring.

Out of this destructive storm, NOAA and our partners are trying to learn as much as possible—both about how to reach the restoration phase even more efficiently and how to make those restoration projects even more resilient. The wide range of coastal threats is not going away, but we at NOAA can help our communities and environment bounce back when they do show up on our shores.

Learn more about coastal resilience and how NOAA’s Ocean Service is helping our coasts and communities bounce back after storms, floods, and other disasters and follow #NOAAResilience on social media.


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In a Louisiana Marsh, an Uncommon Opportunity to Learn about Burning Oil

This is a post by LTJG Kyle Jellison, NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator.

“Every day is a new adventure.” I came to believe this phrase while sailing on the high seas, but it proves true as a NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator as well. There have been many adventures in my time working in the Gulf of Mexico doing emergency response for oil spills and hazardous materials releases.

The most recent oil spill—a pipeline leak in a Louisiana marsh—didn’t seem out of the ordinary, that is, until the Unified Command in charge of the response turned to alternative approaches to quicken and improve the effectiveness of the cleanup.

The Spill and Our Options

On May 28, 2014 a plane hired by Texas Petroleum Investment Company was performing a routine aerial survey of their inland oilfield and noticed a slight oil sheen and a dead clump of roseau cane (phragmites). This sparked further investigation and the discovery of 100 barrels (4,200 gallons) of crude oil, which had leaked out of a breach in their pipeline passing through the Delta National Wildlife Refuge, outside of Venice, Louisiana. Pipelines like this one are routinely inspected, but as they age the potential for corrosion and spills increases.

Roseau cane is a tall, woody plant, similar to bamboo, reaching heights of up to 20 feet. The stalks grow very close together and in water depths between two and 30 inches. This creates a complex situation which is very hard to clean oil out from.

The least invasive method for oil cleanup is to flush out the oil with high volumes of water at low pressure, but this is a long process with low amounts of oil recovered each day. Another common practice is to flush with water while cutting lanes into the vegetation, creating pathways for the oil to migrate along for recovery. Though more aggressive and with higher amounts of oil recovered each day, it still would likely take many weeks or months to clean up this particular oil spill using this method.

An Unconventional Solution

What about doing a controlled burn of the oil where it is, a strategy known as in situ burning? It removes a large amount of oil in a matter of days, and when performed properly, in situ burning can help marsh vegetation recover in five years or less for more than 75 percent of cases in one study.

In situ burning, Latin for burning in place, is considered an “alternative” response technology, rather than part of the regular suite of cleanup options, and is only employed under the right set of circumstances. More information about this can be found in the NOAA report “Oil Spills in Marshes,” which details research and guidelines for in situ burning in chapter 3, Response.

To help determine if burning was appropriate in this case, the Unified Command brought in the NOAA Scientific Support Team, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Fire Management Team, U.S. Coast Guard Gulf Strike Team, and T&T Marine Firefighting and Salvage. After considering the situation, gaining consensus, developing a burn plan, and earning the support of Regional Response Team 6, it was time to light it up!

Where There’s Smoke …

On June 3, 2014, we burned the oil for two hours, with flames reaching 40 feet. The next day, we burned for another six hours. There was a lot of oil to be burned, with pockets of oil spread throughout three acres of impacted marsh. The fire remained contained to the area where enough oil was present to support the burn, extinguishing once it reached the edge of the oiled marsh.

We have an ongoing study to evaluate the impacts of the burn, and preliminary results indicate that there was minimal collateral damage. More than 70 percent of the oil was burned over the two-day period. We considered this to be a very successful controlled burn. The much less remaining oil will be recovered by mechanical methods within a few weeks, instead of months.

Texas Petroleum Investment Company, as the responsible party in this case, will be responsible for all costs incurred for this incident, including cleanup and monitoring (and restoration, if necessary).

To help ensure we learn something from this incident, an assessment team entered the impacted marsh before the burns to collect oil, water, and sediment samples. The team also collected samples after each day of burning and returned a week after the burn to assess the condition of the vegetation and collect samples. This multi-agency team will return to the site in August for more sampling and monitoring.

The long-term monitoring and sampling project is being managed by NOAA, Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, Fish and Wildlife Service, and Texas Petroleum Investment Company. We are conducting the study under the umbrella of the Response Science and Technology Subcommittee of the New Orleans Area Committee, a standing body of response scientists. Jeff Dauzat of Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality and I co-chair this subcommittee and are looking forward to the results of this ongoing scientific project.

Was burning the right move? The science will speak for itself in time.

For more information:

Man standing in a marsh with smoke in the background.LT Kyle Jellison is a Scientific Support Coordinator for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration. He supports Federal On-Scene Coordinators throughout the Gulf of Mexico by providing mission critical scientific information for response and planning to oil and hazardous material releases.


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A Delaware Salt Marsh Finds its way to Restoration by Channeling Success

This is a post by Simeon Hahn, Regional Resource Coordinator for the Office of Response and Restoration’s Assessment and Restoration Division.

You can find the Indian River Power Plant situated along the shores of Indian River Bay in southern Delaware. This shallow body of water is protected from the Atlantic Ocean by a narrow spit of land to the east and is downriver of the town of Millsboro to the west.

In December 1999, the power plant’s owner at the time, Delmarva Power and Light, discovered a leak in an underground fuel line that over a decade had released approximately 500,000 gallons of oil.  The fuel oil had leaked into the soil and groundwater beneath the plant. When the edge of the underground oil plume reached Indian River Bay, oil seeping from the shoreline impacted the fringe of salt marsh growing along the beach, as well as the shallow-water area a short distance offshore.

In the cleanup that followed, about 1,000 tons of oily sediment were excavated from these marshes and replaced with a similar sand quarried from nearby. As part of the restoration, Delmarva replanted the area with hundreds of seedlings of smooth cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora) and other native plants common to the shores of Delaware’s inland bays. But further restoration was needed to compensate for the environmental services lost during the period when the marshes were oiled.

When I took on this case in 2007 as a NOAA coordinator  for the subsequent Natural Resource Damage Assessment, Slough’s Gut Marsh had already been selected as the site of an additional restoration project on Indian River Bay. Slough’s Gut Marsh, east of the James Farm Ecological Preserve near Ocean View, Del., is located on land owned by Sussex County and managed by the Delaware Center for the Inland Bays. The area was described to me as 24 acres of eroded and degraded salt marsh. After a lot of hard work, some innovative thinking, and five years of monitoring the results, I’m pleased to report that Slough’s Gut Marsh has been successfully restored.

What Does it Take to Fix a Marsh?

Previously, however, Slough’s Gut was on the decline, with many of the plants growing in its salty waters either stunted or dying off. The overriding goal, as with many marsh restoration projects, was to reverse this trend and increase the vegetative cover. But does just revegetating a marsh really restore it? On the other hand, some folks, including a few at NOAA, asked whether Slough’s Gut should even be considered for “restoration” since it was already functionally a marsh and … wasn’t the ecosystem working OK? The answer on both accounts was: We were about to find out.

Although the cause of the marsh plant die-offs was not entirely clear, we suspected it had to do with changes to the natural water drainage systems associated with:

  1. Historical mosquito ditching.
  2. Sea level rise.
  3. The gradual sinking of the land.
  4. All of the above.

These suspicions were based on monitoring conducted before Slough’s Gut was ever slated for restoration. It appeared that water would not drain sufficiently off the marsh during the tidal cycle and this was suppressing the vegetation, in a phenomenon known as “waterlogging.”

I became involved as we began scoping the restoration project design. At this point, I suggested that although revegetating the marsh was a reasonable goal, the primary emphasis should be on restoring a more natural network of tidal channels, replacing the old mosquito ditches. Around the 1940s, this salt marsh had been dug up and filled in, creating a series of parallel ditches connecting at a straightened main river channel (a now-questionable practice known as “mosquito ditching” because it aimed to reduce mosquito populations). The current configuration of channels that was leading to the loss of vegetation in Slough’s Gut was likely also impacting the fish, crabs, and other aquatic life that would normally use the marsh.

Looking to a similar project on Washington, DC’s Anacostia River, the design team decided on a technique for restoring tidal channels that uses observations from relatively unimpacted marshes. This example helped us answer questions such as:

  • How big should the channels be?
  • What would a natural channel network look like? (e.g., how often would the channels split, how much would they wind)?

Next, Delmarva Power and Light hired the contractor Cardno ENTRIX to develop a restoration design that used the existing channels as much as possible but restored the channel network by creating new channels while plugging and filling others. The Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC), which has extensive experience working in wetlands, executed the design. Then, we watched and waited.

The End Game

The number of birds observed at Slough's Gut Marsh has doubled since 2008. Here, a heron perches at the site.

The number of birds observed at Slough’s Gut Marsh has doubled since 2008. Here, a heron perches at the site. (Cardno ENTRIX)

Cardno ENTRIX monitored the renovated marsh for five years and collected data on its recovery. This past summer, the natural resource agencies involved (NOAA, the Delaware DNREC, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) together with Delmarva Power and Light, Cardno ENTRIX, and the Center for Inland Bays (the project hosts) visited Slough’s Gut Marsh to view and discuss its progress.

Based on the past five years of data, the marsh is on a path toward successful restoration. There has been a 50 percent increase in the density of fish, shrimp, and crabs living in Slough’s Gut, compared with levels before we restored the natural tidal channels. With this extra food, the number of birds observed there has doubled since 2008.

Additional environmental sampling showed localized drainage improvements, indicating that the new channel network is stable yet adaptable, as it should be in natural marshes. This feature is particularly beneficial when confronted with issues like sea level rise and hurricanes. Protecting and restoring tidal wetlands is an important effort in adapting to climate change in coastal areas.

This project demonstrates that ecological impacts in tidal marshes from historical ditching and diking can be restored by reconstructing a more natural tidal channel network. But don’t take my word for it. Next time you’re in the area, go see the success at Slough’s Gut yourself and leave time to visit the Center for the Inland Bays to learn more about other great environmental efforts going on in Delaware’s inland bays. The center is easily accessible and the view is tremendous.

The natural resource trustees celebrate the restoration of Slough's Gut Marsh in August 2013. Simeon Hahn is at the far right.

The natural resource trustees celebrate the restoration of Slough’s Gut Marsh in August 2013. Simeon Hahn is at the far right. (Cardno ENTRIX)

Simeon Hahn is an Office of Response and Restoration Regional Resource Coordinator in the Mid-Atlantic Region for the NOAA Damage Assessment, Remediation, and Restoration Program. He is located in EPA Region 3 in Philadelphia, Pa., and works on Superfund and state remedial projects and Natural Resource Damage Assessment cases. He has been an environmental scientist with expertise in ecological risk assessment, site remediation, and habitat restoration at NOAA for 15 years and 10 years before that with the Department of Defense.


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In New Jersey, Celebrating a Revived Marsh and the Man who Made it Possible

This is a post by the NOAA Restoration Center’s Carl Alderson.

Ernie Oros speaking next to Woodbridge marsh.

Former State Assemblyman and champion of open space, Ernie Oros at the Woodbridge marsh dedication ceremony on Oct 16, 2007. (New York New Jersey Baykeeper/Greg Remaud)

Ernie Oros, former New Jersey State Assemblyman and octogenarian, stood next to me on the bank of a newly created tributary to the Woodbridge River and looked out across an expanse of restored tidal marsh. It was May 2008 and the marsh that he had long championed was now lush and green and teeming with fish. This inspiring sight before us was the result of a marsh restoration project undertaken by NOAA, the Army Corps of Engineers, New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

Years ago a tall berm was raised between the Woodbridge River and this marshland, effectively walling it off from the reach of the tides that replenished it. Reeds that grow in damaged marshes choked off the tides even further.

He gave a pause, drew a breath and was on to the next subject before I had finished marveling at the sea of grass standing before us. “When can you get the observation walkway back up?” Ernie asked me. “Soon,” I replied, “we have a plan.” “Good,” he said, “I’m not getting any younger.”

That’s how the conversation went until August 2012 when Ernie passed away at the age of 88. The construction of the tidal marsh itself—with all the complexities of hydrology, chemistry, biology, logistical twists and turns, negotiations, permits, and contract discussions—seemed to go up in a snap. In two years it went from design contract to dedication ceremony. Yet, the observation boardwalks—there were now two—seemed to lag behind in a mire of contract disputes, tight budgets, two hurricanes, and extension after extension of funding agreements.

A Vision to Restore

I never wondered why Ernie was so anxious to move forward; he was after all in his 80s and by his own account in failing health. In his knock-around clothes, he looked like an old clam digger, but in his best suit, like the one he wore the day of the marsh dedication ceremony, he still cut the figure of the State Assemblyman he once was. Ernie had a vision for this place, and he was now on a roll. He had long ago established Woodbridge River Watch, a community organization to advocate for open space in Woodbridge, N.J.; he had guided the town through major acquisition and conservation efforts; he gathered momentum for his butterfly garden; planned to landscape the perimeter with local historic artifacts; and now he could add the marsh restoration to his list of achievements.

Among all of his accomplishments, nothing could be more dramatic than having blown life into this dying marshland. It linked the past and the future to a community that blossomed at the cross roads of the American colonial experience in the 17th century, soared to the peak of industrialization beginning in the 18th and 19th centuries, then boomed and at last came to rest upon the suburbanization movement of the 20th century. For myself, I could live with the simple sweet note of this being an urban habitat: a rebirth for colonial wading birds, ribbed mussels, fiddler crabs, and young juvenile bluefish called “snappers.” But for Ernie, the marsh was the opening hymn to a chorus of American history.

It took me a long time to realize what Ernie was up to. The marsh wasn’t just a host for the history garden; it itself was an artifact. The marsh represented every century that came before the first European settlers arrived. Better than any artifact, the marsh was living history as far as Ernie was concerned.

An interpretative sign displaying the flora and fauna found in Woodbridge Marsh.

An interpretative sign displaying the flora and fauna found in Woodbridge Marsh. (Illustrations: Jorge Cotto. Design: Ann Folli)

The observation boardwalks were the last piece of the plan. Both Ernie and I viewed the future boardwalks and their brightly designed story panels as a means of drawing in the citizens of Woodbridge. Boardwalks send a signal of welcome where a marsh alone often does not. The signs would interpret for them the plants, the animals, the natural processes unfolding in the marsh around them.

That is why Ernie was so anxious to see this vision through to completion. Despite the town’s position on the waterfront of three major bodies of water—the Raritan River, Raritan Bay, and Arthur Kill (a tidal straight separating the township from New York City)—very little of it was accessible to the public. Ernie hoped to change that by inviting people into a renewed Woodbridge Marsh.

A Day to Remember

Greg Remaud is the Deputy Director for the New York/New Jersey Baykeeper. The Baykeeper, a long-time partner of NOAA and advocate for open space in New York Harbor, is a non-profit organization committed to the conservation and restoration of the Hudson-Raritan Estuary. For Remaud, it had become increasingly apparent that the post-industrial age presented opportunities to create New Jersey’s waterfront in a new image.

Greg had met up with Ernie Oros years before. With the help of many others, this pair championed a new way forward for the Woodbridge River. Eventually, they were able to draw the attention of key agencies and help these dreams take the shape of Spartina grasses, High Tide bush, and killifish.

Then, earlier this year, I learned of the Baykeeper’s plan to honor Ernie’s memory with a day-long celebration.

One of the sons and great-grandsons of Ernie Oros canoeing on the banks of the Woodbridge River on Ernie Oros Celebration Day, September 28, 2013.

Ernie’s son Richard Oros and Michael Kohler, Ernie’s great-grandson, canoeing on the banks of the Woodbridge River on Ernie Oros Celebration Day, September 28, 2013. (Carl Alderson/all rights reserved)

On the astonishingly beautiful Saturday morning of September 28, 2013, the NOAA Restoration Center was on hand to be part of a very special event to honor Ernie’s life. To honor his legacy, the New York/New Jersey Baykeeper held a family-friendly event right next to what I consider Ernie’s greatest environmental achievement: the 67-acre Woodbridge River Wetland Restoration Project.

In a day that featured music, games, picnics, and face painting, the most popular event was the free kayak tours with the very capable staff of the Baykeeper, who led citizens through a seeming maze of restored marshes and tidal creeks. Several of Ernie’s family members were present. His sons, granddaughters, and great-grandkids jumped into canoes and kayaks to venture a ride through Ernie’s great achievement.

A Role for NOAA

NOAA’s involvement with the Woodbridge River Wetland Restoration Project began to take shape sometime in the late 1990s. We provided funds from natural resource damage settlements for two local oil spills to conduct feasibility studies, design, and permitting in 2000. Under a partnership of federal and state agencies, the project was designed and constructed between 2006 and 2007. NOAA and New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection provided $2.3 million, combining it with funds from the Army Corps of Engineers Harbor Deepening Program to make the full project come together for the Woodbridge River.

The project removed berms and obstructions that had sealed the former wetland from the Woodbridge River for decades and reunited two large tracts of land with the tides via created tidal creeks and planted marsh grasses. Today, the site is once again the home of wading birds, waterfowl, fiddler crabs, ribbed mussels, and seemingly hundreds of thousands of killifish. Ernie had tirelessly dedicated much of his adult life to campaign for the acquisition, protection, and restoration of his beloved Woodbridge River wetlands and his achievements will live on in their vibrant waters.

Carl Alderson.

Carl Alderson (left, NOAA) and Greg Remaud (right, NY/NJ Baykeeper) on the banks of the Woodbridge River on Ernie Oros Celebration Day, Sept. 28, 2013. Credit: Susan Alderson.

Carl Alderson is a Marine Resource Specialist with the NOAA Restoration Center, located at the JJ Howard Marine Science Lab in Highlands, N.J. Carl provides oversight of coastal habitat restoration projects and marine debris programs through NOAA’s Damage Assessment, Remediation, and Restoration Program (DARRP) and Community-based Restoration Grants Program (CRP) in the mid-Atlantic region. He is a graduate of Rutgers University and is a Licensed Landscape Architect. Before joining NOAA, Carl worked for the City of New York and led a decade long effort to restore tidal wetlands, marine bird, and fish habitat as compensation for natural resources damages resulting from oil spills in New York Harbor. Carl is recognized as a national leader in restoration of coastal wetlands and bay habitats.

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