In an era of changing climate, conservationists say the answers to critical questions about rising sea levels will be found in estuaries — the dynamic habitats typically formed where freshwater rivers meet tidal oceans or lakes. This has motivated Connecticut to seek a federal partnership for an estuary reserve along the state’s southeastern shore.
In December 2018, Connecticut submitted a proposal to the federal government nominating portions of the Connecticut River Estuary, Thames River, and Long Island Sound to be recognized as the nation’s 30th National Estuary Research Reserve — a kind of federal and state partnership to promote education, conservation, and research.
In a lecture on Thursday night sponsored by the Connecticut Audubon Society’s Roger Tory Peterson Estuary Center, former Hudson Research Reserve manager Betsy Blair said that many NERRs are studying the toughest questions related to marshes’ survival.
“These are existential challenges: Will these marshes continue to persist?” Blair told the audience at the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme. “And what do we as a community of scientists and educators and stewards need to understand and do in order to protect the possibility of these really vitally important natural communities persisting.”
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which manages federal operations around NERRs, calls them “living laboratories.” Blair said that educational programs are critical to the reserves’ mission, offering a chance for students and the public to understand and appreciate coastal ecosystems.
“These sites are special for what they protect, they’re special for what they do, and they’re special for who they inspire,” she said, adding later that the educational mission of NERRs has inspired many young people to pursue majors or careers in science and conservation.
Blair said many reserves also help their surrounding communities by providing maps, researching changes in tide after major events such as hurricanes, connecting experts, and responding to other needs as they arise. They also often become sites of recreation and commerce for fishing and other aquatic activities.
Connecticut would be 30th NERR
The Roger Tory Peterson Estuary Center’s Vice Chair John Forbis was part of the team that evaluated potential estuary sites in Connecticut. He said their evaluation covered over 30 different criteria including the ecosystems’ hydrology, endangered species, and their makeup of upland areas and wetlands.
This area was interesting, Forbis said, because its features show the possibility that wetlands can grow as sea levels rise, which is uncommon for estuaries.
“The whole Connecticut River has a huge amount of water coming down, and it also has a huge tidal force because of where we are on the Long Island Sound,” Forbis said Thursday night after Blair’s lecture. “Those two forces coming together, as the ebb tide goes out, create huge lateral forces which push the sediment way back into our wetlands. This increases the likelihood that our wetlands can continue to grow at the same rate that our rising sea levels grow. We’re one of the unique estuaries that has that capability.”
The region is also particularly suited for the educational access provided by easy access from proximity to several school systems, Forbis said.
Blair said that NERRs receive about 70% of their funding from the federal government and about 30% from state and local partners. 29 NERRs already sit on coasts around the country, from the Atlantic to the Pacific as well as the Gulf of Mexico, the Great Lakes, Alaska, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico. Massachusetts’ Waquoit Bay, Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay, and New York’s Hudson River host recognized NERRs in the northeast. Hawaii’s He’eia National Estuarine Research Reserve was the 29th and most recently recognized NERR, inducted in 2017.
If NOAA approves Connecticut’s application for a NERR site, the state will still need to prepare a detailed management plan, explained Kevin O’Brien, the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection analyst who led the site selection project.
“When we do receive news, and we hope it’s good news of course, that’s sort of half the battle,” O’Brien said, answering an audience member’s question after Blair’s lecture. “There are a couple steps in the process that still need to happen.”
O’Brien said that the state would still need to submit plans on protection and research.
It will likely still be another one or two years before a ribbon cutting ceremony, O’Brien said, and he said that there would be numerous opportunities for public involvement and engagement as state agencies look to build partnerships with different local and specialized groups.
“It’s a big deal when we get a new site in the system; it doesn’t happen all that often,” Blair said. “And it brings us closer to being a system that’s truly representative of all the different places around the coast and their needs and their protection and all the special things about them.”