After securing preliminary site approval for a National Estuarine Research Reserve last fall, Connecticut officials and partners have begun the extensive process of creating environmental documents that would govern how the site would be managed.
Created by Congress in the early 1970s as part of the Coastal Zone Management Act, the National Estuarine Research Reserve System (NERRS) supports research and stewardship of U.S. estuaries and other habitats in coastal and Great Lakes states and territories. Estuaries are vibrant but vulnerable areas where fresh water flowing from rivers and streams mixes with salt water from the ocean; the Great Lakes are part of the system because many of their coastlines share characteristics with estuarine ecosystems. The proposed site would be the 30th in the system. Connecticut is one of only two ocean-bordering states without a reserve.
Last month, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the federal agency that administers the reserve system, led the first public meeting of this phase of the process. NOAA was supported by the project’s main local organizations: the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP); University of Connecticut, Connecticut Sea Grant; and Connecticut Audubon Society. About 50 determined people overcame power outages caused by Tropical Storm Isaias to join the virtual meeting.
Reserves run through partnerships
Each NERRS reserve is a partnership between NOAA—which provides funding, national guidance, and technical assistance—and a state- or territory-based entity, such as an agency or university, which is responsible for the day-to-day management of the site, with input from the local community.
“The power of the [NERR] system is having a network that uses the same approach at each reserve that allows for comparison among sites while compiling information that can be used regionally and nationally,” Evan Ward, head of the Department of Marine Sciences with the University of Connecticut, Connecticut Sea Grant, told meeting participants. “The reserve also addresses specific local issues. We like to say the NERRS is locally relevant and nationally significant.”
During the meeting, participants asked how the reserve’s boundaries will be set to best accommodate important “marsh migration” and how advance planning of that migration could improve Connecticut’s resilience to sea level rise. Tidal marshes provide important habitat and spawning areas for marine life and help buffer coastal communities from storms. Sea level rise is now threatening to drown tidal marshes, and scientists, coastal managers, and government agencies are working to sustain them. Their strategies include facilitating a natural—and gradual—inland shift of tidal wetlands as sea level rise overtakes previously dry land. This process is often referred to as marsh migration.
The path to establishing a reserve
Connecticut’s initial interest in a reserve began in 2004 but picked up momentum in 2018, when then-Governor Dannel Malloy submitted a formal letter of nomination to NOAA. An exhaustive, locally driven site selection process involved dozens of project partners, Kevin O’Brien, supervising environmental analyst with the Land and Water Resources Division of Connecticut DEEP, told participants in last month’s meeting.
In a report submitted to NOAA in early 2019, local stakeholders nominated a site that includes the Lord Cove Wildlife Management Area; Great Island/Roger Tory Peterson Wildlife Management Area in Old Lyme; the Bluff Point State Park complex; Haley Farm State Park and the University of Connecticut Avery Point campus in Groton; and parts of the adjacent open-water areas of Long Island Sound and the Thames and Connecticut rivers.
The August public hearing formally kicked off the next phase of the process: development of an environmental impact statement (EIS) and more opportunities for public comment and participation.
The EIS “defines what is unique and potentially at risk within the area,” O’Brien told attendees. The draft EIS will be shared with the public and other interested groups and stakeholders for review and comment in 2021 before it is finalized and submitted to NOAA later in that year. Connecticut also plans to develop the reserve’s required management plan, which is part of the EIS, this fall and winter. That document requires public participation, which the local entities supporting the reserve’s designation will actively seek.
If NOAA approves the statement and plan, Connecticut officials anticipate that the designation process will be complete in late 2021 or early 2022. “We are definitely looking forward to hosting a National Estuarine Research Reserve in Connecticut, and your participation and support is critical to this process,” Brian Thompson, director of Connecticut DEEP’s Land and Water Resources Division, told meeting attendees.
Pew supports the designation of a new reserve along Connecticut’s coast. Read more about our work to expand this important system.
Ted Morton is a director with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ project to conserve marine life in the United States.