Leipsic River watershed receives C+ on health report card

 

A view of Little Creek (also known as Little River). The Leipsic River watershed, to which the creek belongs, was just given a report card on Thursday that assessed its overall condition as part of a recent Wetland Monitoring and Assessment Program. The watershed received a C+, indicating that it’s not functioning at its full potential. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

DOVER — A recent Wetland Monitoring and Assessment Program report card, released on Thursday, gave the Leipsic River watershed an overall grade of C+ in terms of its condition — indicating that it’s not functioning at its full potential. The Leipsic River watershed encompasses 128 square miles, according to Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control.

The Leipsic River watershed is located within the Delaware Bay and Estuary Basin, and all of its waters drain into the Delaware Bay. Land cover in this watershed is dominated by wetlands and agriculture, said DNREC. Of these wetlands, nearly three-quarters are saltwater, and the other one quarter are freshwater. The watershed itself is composed of two sub-watersheds that flow into the Delaware Bay: the Leipsic River, which originates in Kenton and flows approximately 19 miles eastward through Bombay Hook National Wildlife National Wildlife Refuge and Little Creek (also known as Little River), which flows for approximately eight miles through the town of Little Creek.

Per the report, approximately 8,493 acres of historic wetland area in this watershed has been lost to development, agriculture and conversion to open water along the coastline in recent years.

“Unfortunately, approximately 21 percent of this watershed’s wetlands have already been lost,” said Alison Rogerson, DNREC environmental scientist and program lead for the Wetland Monitoring and Assessment Program. “But this opens an opportunity for citizens and landowners to benefit from restoring and protecting local wetlands by taking small steps.”

In the summer of 2013, teams of wetland scientists from the program visited a total of 128 randomly-selected sites within the Leipsic River Watershed, said DNREC. Using condition assessment checklists and biological metrics, they found wetlands in the watershed were in fair condition, and that the most common stressors to them were invasive plants; digging, filling, and/or ditching of wetlands; and agriculture or development in the wetlands’ surrounding buffer area.

The wetland reports and the work of the Wetland Monitoring and Assessment Program are made possible by EPA Region 3 Wetland Program Development funding.

What’s in the report?

DNREC’s data was used to create a technical report on the Leipsic River Watershed that summarized not only the health of these wetlands, but also examined how wetland acreage has changed in recent decades, what value wetlands provide and discussed how trends in land use have and will impact wetlands across the watershed. Land use in the watershed is dominated by agriculture and wetlands, nearly three-quarters of which are saltwater wetlands that act as resources for both people and wildlife. Impacts to wetland health can diminish a wetland’s ability to perform important functions like minimizing flooding, controlling erosion, improving water quality and providing a biologically rich habitat for plants and animals, said DNREC.

Conclusions and recommendations

Based on the report results, DNREC made 12 specific management recommendations targeted at scientists, decision makers, and landowners on how to best improve the watershed conditions.

Environmental scientists, researchers and land managers were advised to:

• Increase resiliency of tidal shorelines by installing living shorelines at appropriate sites.

• Support vegetated buffers for tidal and non-tidal wetlands. (Buffers are natural regions adjacent to wetlands that can help wetlands stay in good condition. Wetland buffers trap sediments and excess nutrients and filter pollutants before they reach wetlands. They can also slow storm water runoff from nearby impervious surfaces, such as roads.)

• Continue to increase citizen education and involvement through effective outreach.

• Control the extent and spread of non-native invasive plant species such as Japanese honeysuckle, narrow-leaf cattail, multiflora rose, Japanese stiltgrass and reed canary grass.

•Support the Delaware Bayshore Initiative by securing funding for wetland conservation and restoration.

The report made several recommendations to state, county and other local officials as well:

• Improve protection of non-tidal palustrine wetlands through state, county, and local programs.

• Update tidal estuarine wetland regulatory maps to improve accuracy and efficiency.

• Develop incentives to maintain natural buffers of tidal and non-tidal wetlands.

Since over half (53.1 percent) of all sites that were sampled in the Leipsic River watershed were privately owned, the report also included strong recommendations for landowners interested in preserving and improving the health of the watershed:

• Protect and maintain the buffers around your wetlands.

• Preserve or restore wetlands that are on your land by planting native plant species and removing invasive ones, letting grasses grow and leaving downed logs and sticks where they are.

• Strengthen tidal shorelines using environmentally-friendly methods — such as building living shorelines with coir logs, shell bags and native vegetation.

To read the full report on Leipsic and Little Creek, the wetlands report card and more information on assessment methods, visit de.gov/leipsicwetlands.

Reach staff writer Ian Gronau at igronau@newszap.com

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