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Partners identify resources for landowners in the path of marsh migration

With support from Hurricane Sandy funding, Delaware is developing outreach strategies to help concentrate efforts and funding around hot spots for marsh migration to minimize impacts on coastal communities and agricultural producers.
Partners identify resources for landowners in the path of marsh migration

What lies in the path of migrating wetlands? A new project in Delaware looks for opportunities to provide targeted outreach to communities and land owners threatened by sea-level rise. Photo credit: FWS

As an environmental scientist for the Delaware Department of Natural Resources, Mark Biddle is well aware of the threat that sea-level rise poses to coastal marshes in his low-lying state. But he’s just as concerned about the ripple effects on one of the state’s most important industries: agriculture.

“In a small state where the Northern portion is urbanized, and the southeastern portion is mostly resorts, there is already a lot of pressure from development,” said Biddle. “There is only so much room for crops like corn, soybean, and wheat, and we want fields along the coast to remain productive while considering the effects of higher water levels and saltwater intrusion.”

He has grounds for concern. Last fall, the Delaware Coastal Program developed sophisticated geospatial models that incorporated sea-level rise projections to show potential hot spots for marsh migration -- places where current wetlands are likely to end up in the future based on landscape topography and hydrology.

The next step was to determine: What lay in their path?

“We realized a large portion of those places are cropland,” said Biddle. “So we needed to figure out the best way to reach members of the agricultural community to say: This is what we project will happen, here are the lands we think are priorities, and here is how we offer technical assistance and identify programs that will help you get funding to plan for the future,” said Biddle.

Delaware is not the first state to confront this challenge. “Other states in the region were starting to look at marsh migration planning, and although Delaware had done a lot of outreach related to climate change and sea-level rise, we hadn’t been strategic at a small scale considering marsh migration,” said Biddle. But now all five Mid-Atlantic states have a way to learn from and build upon best practices in wetland prioritization along their shared coastline.

In December 2016, the Environmental Law Institute (ELI) and the Mid Atlantic Regional Council on the Ocean (MARCO) released a report that provides a comprehensive look at wetland prioritization activities and tools -- from vulnerability mapping to policies that support living shorelines -- in New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia, to give practitioners a sense of how peers in their states, and beyond, are working toward resilience.

As part of a cohort of projects that received funding coordinated by the North Atlantic Landscape Conservation Cooperative (LCC) to investigate threats to coastal systems and species in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, MARCO teamed up with ELI to research where and to what extent the goals of climate-risk reduction and resilience are being met in programs that impact wetlands. ELI developed the inventory of best practices, and a proposed framework to support a regional approach to risk reduction and resilience, while allowing for improvement in individual states or programs.

But more than just publishing a report, the partners wanted to make sure the framework within would be useful for a real practitioner in the field. So they asked one.

“After having conversations with Mark and his team, we proposed to build on the analysis that had been done in Delaware by providing recommendations for the best tools, messages, and strategies to manage the lands that would be highly suitable for marsh migration,” said Rebecca Kihslinger, a Science and Policy Analyst for ELI.

She and her colleagues developed an approach for identifying priorities and ways in which Delaware could be strategic in concentrating efforts and funding around these hot spots.

“We helped connect the dots between the highest priorities for marsh migration and vehicles for addressing them,” explained Kihslinger. Vehicles that include state tools, local planning tools, and private funding sources.

ELI outlined two scenarios in their final report for Delaware: One focusing on outreach to a municipality to explain relevant tools, and the other focusing on outreach to an agricultural land owner to explain relevant tools.

“The messages for those audiences may be different, and the resources for managing these areas may vary by landowner as well,” explained Kihslinger.

And those audience insights are already making a difference in Delaware.

“In agricultural areas, we realize the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) programs are going to be most important, and we are trying to learn more about private foundations that work in these areas as well,” said Biddle. “Not all conservation organizations are interested in conservation easements on cropland, but when you consider how saltwater intrusion will increase salinity and damage some crops, you can see the urgency,” he explained.

Given the repercussions for people’s lives and livelihoods, the outreach strategy helps Delaware look beyond -- or before -- the endgame for marsh migration.

“It’s not just about telling people what’s going to happen in the future, but about providing guidance to landowners on how they can plan for it today,” said Biddle. “We are trying to explain that things are going to change, and it’s better to think and plan now than to have to react later.”

While they are starting with municipal and agricultural landowners, Biddle added that transportation and infrastructure agencies will soon become important audiences for outreach as well. “Along the Delaware Bay coast, there is one road in and out of some communities, and its only two feet above sea level,” he pointed out.

But knowing where the hotspots are, and what kinds of resources are available for properties in the transition zones between current and future marsh, is the first step to having a productive conversation with any audience.

“We are confident in what will come out of this report, and we are developing outreach and thinking creatively about how to leverage funding,” said Biddle.

He is also confident that just as his state was able to gain valuable insight from the inventory of best practices for wetland prioritization in the Mid-Atlantic region, other practitioners will be able to take something away from the pilot project in Delaware.

“Every state has its nuances, but there are similarities too, and where possible we should be thinking about these issues from a regional standpoint,” said Biddle.

“We all share a coastline, so we are in it together.”

To see MARCO and ELI’s Developing Wetland Restoration Priorities for Climate Risk Reduction in the MARCO Region report click here.

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