Cape Gazette

Refuge issues management plan

Prime Hook officials call for closing breach, saltwater marsh
By Ron MacArthur | Dec 31, 2012
Photo by: Ron MacArthur A constant stream of water flows over Prime Hook Road from one marsh impoundment into another.

Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge's final comprehensive conservation plan calls for closing a series of breaches at Fowler Beach, a major change from the draft plan spurred by widespread public demands to repair the dune line.

Five years after it was supposed to be completed, the final plan, designed to guide the future of the refuge for the next 15 years, was released Dec. 28.

Based on public comments, U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials who developed the plan have modified the agency's preferred alternative – one of three options – to address serious degradation of refuge marshes. The preferred alternative now clarifies that breach repair is an important first step in marsh restoration as outlined in the plan, said Thomas Bonetti, the Northeast region refuge planning team leader.

The breaches at Fowler Beach – opened and then widened by storms over the past five years – have allowed the free flow of saltwater from Delaware Bay into previously freshwater marshes, destroying grasses and trees that once provided protection for Primehook Beach, a community that borders the refuge. The breaches now extend along a 4,000-foot section of the coastline just north of Primehook Beach.

“We had many comments on the breaches and flooding,” Bonetti said. “The final CCP makes it clearer that breach repair is an important first step.”

Under the preferred alternative, officials would manage the refuge to mimic natural processes by restoring all four impoundments to saltwater marsh, doing away with freshwater marsh. Just how the plan will be implemented depends on staff and funding, Bonetti said.

Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge, located along the Delaware Bay, is made up of four impoundments called units. Eighty percent of the 10,133-acre refuge is tidal and freshwater wetlands, and 20 percent consists of upland habitats. The refuge was established in 1963 primarily to preserve coastal wetlands as wintering and breeding habitat for migratory waterfowl.

Because of the breaches, saltwater has caused extensive damage to the Unit 2 freshwater impoundment, and that damage is extending into Unit 3. Units 1 and 4 are already saltwater marsh.

Prime Hook's comprehensive conservation plan and environmental impact statement are now under a 30-day review by state and federal agencies and those who offered comments to ensure U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials addressed their concerns.

At the end of the review period, Regional Director Wendi Weber will determine if the plan complies with the National Environmental Policy Act followed by a record of decision and final publication. Only then can the plan be implemented.

In the interim, Bonetti said, officials are negotiating with engineering firms to determine the best design and how much material would be needed to fill the breaches and restore the marsh.

Final publication of the plan has been held up by changing environmental conditions within the refuge as well as litigation over farming on refuge lands and a proposed dune repair project in 2011.

The plan is available at


Residents say emergency repairs needed

Ask any Primehook Beach resident and they will tell you quickly what state and federal officials should have at the top of their New Year's resolutions list: fill the breaches at Fowler Beach.

Another year has passed and little has been done to ease the flooding issues for those who live on the marsh side of Primehook Beach.

However, the coming year could see some movement. Gov. Jack Markell has asked the federal government for $20 million to repair damage to Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge as the result of Hurricane Sandy.

Residents say time is running short, including Rick Allan who has been at the forefront of the community's effort to get public officials to take action.

Because of recent storms – including Hurricane Sandy – Allan said the community is set up for disaster at the beginning of the winter storm season. “We can't run and hide anymore,” he said.

In a recent letter to state officials, Allan laid out a plan for fixing the breaches called Operation Prime Hook, which would assemble the logistical and management assets of the National Guard, Dover Air Force Base, DEMA and FEMA in collaboration with the Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Delaware Department of Transportation and Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control.

Allan's solution includes the placement of huge sandbags to fill in the breaches at Fowler Beach and secure portions of Prime Hook Road that are at most risk.

Allan said this type of emergency response technique was used along the Mississippi River, after Hurricane Katrina and to protect Gulf Coast wetlands following the BP oil spill. “There are countless examples from all over the country where helicopters flown by National Guard or other service personnel have delivered this protection quickly and with successful outcomes,” he said.

“Give us some hope, give us some protection, give us a future,” Allan wrote in a letter to Gov. Jack Markell. “If Prime Hook goes, so will all the bay communities. It's not a very pretty thought but it is a very real possibility.”

A trash truck makes it way on a flooded section of Prime Hook Road Dec. 27 near the community of Primehook Beach. (Photo by: Ron MacArthur)
A "Fix the Breaches" sign shines its reflection on a flooded section of Primehook Beach roadway. (Photo by: Ron MacArthur)
Trees and marshland that once offered protection to Primehook Beach residents are nearly destroyed because of a steady flow of Delaware Bay saltwater. (Photo by: Ron MacArthur)
Primehook Beach residents are getting used to seeing signs like this leading to Prime Hook Road, the only public access to the community. (Photo by: Ron MacArthur)
Comments (3)
Posted by: Barry Wayne Price | Dec 31, 2012 08:43

Fighting nature is an ongoing process.

Posted by: Preston L Parker | Jan 01, 2013 13:15

Life is an ongoing process! Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge WAS a national treasurer. Due to federal & state neglect it is forever changed. Nature had little to do with it. The $900,000 spent to do this CCP could have more than corrected the problem. Seems the gov. likes to wait till things r on the brink of total destruction before they finally do what should have been done from the beginning. The breaches r fixed elsewhere in the state ASAP for ex; the Indian River Inlet Bridge & along coastal dunes. The spin on this story has always been sea level rise is the culprit. Funny how that's supposedly prevalent in only one spot in our fine State! Anyway now finally there is the best chance in years that a sensible approach is underway & the breach will be fixed which not only will benefit the decaying national refuge but also the community of Prime Hook Beach, Broadkill Beach, The Town of Slaughter Beach ( incidentally 331 yrs old), century old farms, farm communities, & rural communities- all proud Delawareans! This Bayshore Region is an asset of our State that can not be lost! Anyone that comes to the Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge & surrounding community that does not see the senseless devastation & destruction of a region is BLIND!

This isn't about winning, this is about doing the right thing! Also about preserving & protecting- not neglecting!!!

All residents who surround Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge were once proud of that fact & touted the refuges beauty, NOW they feel betrayed by a neighbor who once promised to enhance them not destroy them!

until THE BREACHES ARE FIXED & the FLOODING IS STOPPED & the BAYSHORE REGION is made whole again- we can & will not rest!

We the residents of this region are the biggest advocates of the treasures held within, we will persevere, unite, lobby, push, ensure that we are not forgotten, till the job is done!

Never doubt that one person or one small group etc can make a positive change. This is America & individuals made America great & we intend to follow our ancestors lead & continue to believe in the statement- " for the people by the people."

Posted by: Barry Wayne Price | Jan 02, 2013 08:42

Brian Zwit -  my sentiments exactly. Preston Parker - Nature had everything to do with it. Joan Deaver - How much taxpayer money is required for a ongoing war with Nature?

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