VILLAS – Representatives from the state Department of Environmental Protection gave a presentation on the $37.5 million ecological restoration project that will close a 428-acre section of the nearly 1,200-acre Higbee Beach Wildlife Management Area until December 2026.
The meeting, held on Thursday, Feb. 8, in Lower Township Hall, drew a large crowd of residents who had questions or comments on the project.
Matt Holthaus, a water resource engineer in ecosystem restoration and assistant vice president of WSP, an environmental consulting firm working with the DEP, said he has been designing the project for 10 years. He gave the bulk of the presentation.
Holthaus said the affected project area will be about 260 acres, and that the entire 428-acre section was closed for public safety.
He said the goal of the project is to restore tidal saltwater flow to the marsh area, restoring its original nature as a saltwater marsh.
Former Cape May Point Mayor Bob Mullock made an appeal for the DEP to consider adding a 30- to 40-acre lake into the management area.
Lower Township resident John Schneider wondered whether allowing the saltwater marsh to be reestablished would affect the freshwater aquifers, which provide drinking water for the area and which are being burdened with new development. The panel assembled for the presentation did not respond directly to Schneider’s question.
The project is designed to allow tidal flow of seawater from Delaware Bay into Pond Creek and its tributaries. The water should flow out with outgoing tide. In the process, it creates a saltwater marsh area that is free of the phragmites that overtake freshwater areas.
The Pond Creek Restoration Project, in a statement issued by DEP Commissioner Shawn LaTourette, “will restore a major section of the wildlife management area that was degraded many years ago by a magnesium-extraction plant.”
He said the project site “consists of the former Harbison-Walker magnesite facility and associated landfill, Davey’s Lake and most of the Pond Creek marsh. The plant extracted magnesium from seawater.”
The goal of the project, in part, is to reestablish tidal inundation to a large portion of Pond Creek Marsh without increasing flood risk to the Upper watershed. The aim is not to allow tidal inundation of the habitat of the northern marsh area.
Township resident Jay Kopp, whose property borders the management area, expressed concern about his property being flooded following the tidal marsh restoration, especially in the event of a major storm.
Dave Golden, a Lower Township resident who works for the DEP’s Division of Fish & Wildlife, said the division oversees 122 wildlife management areas. He said it would be the division’s job to maintain the infrastructure being put in place that would allow for water to recede into the bay. He said when issues do come up or when something happens, his division would come in and patch up or repair the problem.
“We have the experience do it – repairing state assets,” Golden said.
Kopp was not satisfied with the panel’s answers to his questions and said, “The state does not have sovereign immunity going forward. This is not being done for the residents of Cape May County.”
Golden assured the audience that the goal of the project is to get people out to the Higbee Beach Wildlife Management Area and allow them to enjoy nature.
The project work will be performed by A.P. Construction of Philadelphia. The site will be closed and work will begin once preparation work is completed, including installing fencing, signage, erosion prevention measures and site dewatering.
The project requires modifying the inlet channel to allow sufficient tidal flushing, developing a network of secondary and tertiary channels to assist tidal flow into the interior of the marsh, excavating deep flood pools for fish habitat and creating upland islands for shorebirds.
An earthen berm will be constructed around much of the perimeter of the marsh, which will provide access to wildlife observation blinds and contribute to a trail system encircling the marsh.
According to the DEP, the restored wetland project area will provide foraging and loafing habitat for raptors, such as ospreys, peregrine falcons, merlins, kestrels, cooper hawks and sharp-shinned hawks during their migratory season. It also will increase food, shelter and general habitat for numerous species of fish, amphibians, reptiles and mammals.
Township Manager Mike Laffey said before the meeting that the entire project is being funded from fines issued to polluters, not out of tax money. The DEP’s news release on the project says the project is funded with Natural Resource Damage funds and co-led by DEP’s Office of Natural Resource Restoration and Office of Coastal Engineering in partnership with the Division of Fish & Wildlife.
Contact the author, Christopher South, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 609-886-8600, ext. 128.