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Director of Peconic Estuary Program outlines updates on program

MAHREEN KHAN PHOTO Dr. Joyce Novak, director of the Peconic Estuary Program.

The Peconic Estuary Program, one of 28 national estuary programs mandated by the 1972 Clean Water Act, will be seeking local input this summer on community areas that East End residents would like to see restored.

Program director Dr. Joyce Novak presented updates on the program at Monday’s meeting of the Mattituck-Laurel Civic Association. The goal of the program, she said, is to look after water bodies and carry out watershed planning in areas that have federally mandated requirements on them. While not a legal entity, the program acts as a facilitator and scientific communicator for various groups, working with the county, state and five East End towns.

“We’re currently undergoing a revamp of our Comprehensive Conservation Management Plan,” Dr. Novak said. “This is our guiding document, which really has a lot of weight when it comes to accessing grant money and leveraging local funds to be able to carry out projects.”

PEP carries out a plethora of habitat restoration efforts for fish migration, including one in the Peconic, where large populations of alewives spawn. Alewives are a food fish for larger stockfish, Dr. Novak explained, making them an integral part of the ocean ecosystem. They are actively in the run now, and can be found running upstream in places like Grangebel Park in Riverhead.

“There [are] a lot of dams along the Peconic River system, so what we’re doing is putting together plans and getting money to put fish bypasses around the dams and weirs that exist,” she said.

The program is also implementing a land protection strategy in the Peconic Watershed, looking at every parcel of land, updating land use maps and specifically identifying natural points of coastal resiliency. These include salt and upland marshes that will migrate naturally as sea levels continue to rise, according to Dr. Novak. Also actively targeted are areas that can be preserved to support wetlands, considered one of the most important mechanisms of coastal resiliency. This, Dr. Novak said, will additionally apply to regions that towns might be considering for house migration — moving structures farther back on their sites, away from water.

“They’re all pretty large, pretty difficult conversations that are starting to be had, but this is what this kind of plan is going to look at,” Dr. Novak said.

As part of its wetlands habitat restoration efforts, PEP is funding conceptual designs for four different areas, including two on the North Fork. One of those involves phragmites control along Narrow River Road in Orient and the other is a restoration effort at Meetinghouse Creek in Aquebogue. Both projects ere considered high priority by PEP.

“These will produce design-ready pieces that can be inserted into grant applications for the town. We plan on continuing in this way and, every two years, putting together three or four more so that there can be a bank of these for the towns to choose,” said Dr. Novak.

Two living shoreline pilot projects are currently underway, in which mussels and clams are being used to re-vegetate shorelines. PEP members will measure each living shoreline’s capacity to ameliorate wind and wave dissipation and monitor success rates. One is located in Greenport, and the other is near the Suffolk County Marine Environmental Learning Center in Southold. The areas are geographically different, something Dr. Novak said is important for understanding how they can be implemented across regions.

The program director also discussed the hardened shorelines assessment that PEP began in 2002. That assessment, which is still in progress on the South Fork, pertains to areas that are bulkheaded or have a pier, jetty or marina present. The goal is to assess how much of the shoreline is hardened and compare the numbers, allowing towns to use them as planning tools.

“Towns have a lot of trouble figuring out, ‘How much bulkhead is too much? Where should we put it? Where is it effective? Where is it not necessary?’ This is a tool that will help them do that, “ Dr. Novak said. “We very much support all water users — the recreational fisherman, oyster farmers, boaters, paddle boarders, kayakers. The whole point is that we keep the water as clean as possible so everyone can responsibly use it.”

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