A report on the health of wetlands in the Broadkill River Watershed was released late last month by the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Health.
Prepared by DNREC's Wetland Monitoring and Assessment Program, the report includes management recommendations, such as enforcing wetland buffer regulations, updating tidal wetland regulatory maps and protecting vulnerable freshwater wetlands from conversion.
"Protected and functioning wetlands are vital to help ensure a healthy watershed, improve water quality, act as a buffer against coastal storms, and store excess rainwater," said DNREC Environmental Scientist Alison Rogerson, program lead for Wetland Monitoring and Assessment. "The data and recommendations [in the report] will help guide voluntary wetland restoration and protection efforts overseen by state resource managers and groups such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and local watershed citizen advisory committees."
Research for the report was conducted in 2010, when a team of scientists visited 94 randomly assigned wetland sites in the Broadkill watershed and collected data on the plants, hydrology and wetland disturbances.
The team's report summarizes not only the health of the wetlands, but also examines how wetland acreage has changed in recent decades, and discusses how trends in land use have and will impact wetlands across the watershed. Changes documented in the report include the conversion of 75 acres of freshwater wetlands into development or agricultural production; coastal wetlands in Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge and Broadkill Beach lost to development and conversion to open water; and numerous stormwater ponds created as part of residential developments.
Matt Jennette, an environmental scientist with DNREC who wrote the report, said the two factors predominantly impacting the health of the wetlands are invasive plants and artificial ditching. Sources of pollution adjacent to the wetlands are also problematic.
"By having these stressors in the wetlands, the wetlands can't perform the functions it's supposed to perform," Jennette said.
According to Rogerson, in comparison to watersheds that have been assessed in the past, the Broadkill watershed had fewer severely stressed wetlands. The majority, she said, were classified as moderately stressed wetlands, which generally maintain some characteristics of natural wetlands, but with evidence of past disturbances to hydrology, plant community, or wetland buffers.
The Broadkill River headwaters originate near Milton and flow 25 miles eastward towards Broadkill Beach, and into the Delaware Bay through the Roosevelt Inlet. One of 16 watersheds that comprise the Delaware Bay and Estuary Basin, the Broadkill River Watershed covers 68,500 acres and is primarily comprised of agricultural land with urban development and wildlife refuge. Wetlands make up 20 percent of the watershed.