VIMS

EPA grant will help localities conserve headwater wetlands

  • Headwater Creek
    Headwater Creek  Guthries Creek is a headwater creek that drains into the Poropotank River, which itself drains into the York River. View is upstream toward the forested headwater area.  Photo by Dr. Kirk Havens.
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VIMS to develop tools for dealing with impacts of sea-level rise

Researchers at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science have received a 3-year, $392,773 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency to identify the streams and wetlands most vulnerable to sea-level rise, and to develop tools to help local governments and citizens conserve these important ecosystems.

The project depends critically on a dataset of tidal-marsh observations first gathered by VIMS scientists in the 1970s. Only with this historical baseline can today’s researchers accurately map the slow but inexorable impacts of rising seas and help local communities prepare and prioritize their responses.

Project lead Donna Marie Bilkovic, a Research Associate Professor in the Center for Coastal Resources Management (CCRM) at VIMS, says the funding will allow her team to “assess climate-change risks to Virginia’s headwater wetlands, so we can build a more comprehensive picture of their resilience.” The funding complements ongoing efforts from a 2012 EPA grant, which was designed to identify risks to headwater resources from land-use and development pressures.

Taskinas Creek, a tributary of the York River, represents the type of connected system the VIMS team will be assessing, The creek connects headwater wetlands with brackish and tidal marshes. Photo by Dr. Donna Bilkovic.The researchers will use the York River watershed—with 4,500 distinct headwater wetlands covering almost 30,000 acres—as a model ecosystem for their study, then transfer lessons learned to other coastal localities throughout Virginia and the mid-Atlantic.

EPA Regional Administrator Shawn M. Garvin, who announced the VIMS grant during an October 1 press conference, has called headwater wetlands “nature's kidneys” for their ability to remove excess nutrients, toxic substances, and sediment from waters flowing into Chesapeake Bay. Flooding of these wetlands by rising seas threatens to degrade or destroy their ecological vitality, as well as their capacity to benefit Bay water quality.

“To sustain the ecological benefits these wetlands provide,” says Bilkovic, “we have to incorporate climate-adaptation strategies into planning. Strategies could include protection of wetlands with the highest ecological value or allowing for the retreat of wetlands where possible.”

The team will identify areas of high value and possible retreat by using the Virginia Wetlands Condition Assessment Tool, or WetCAT—a geographic information system data map jointly developed by VIMS and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.

CCRM Director Carl Hershner says the current project will further expand on VIMS’ previous contributions to Virginia’s EPA-approved Wetland Program Plan, and supports the broader U.S. policy of “no net loss” of wetlands, first implemented by President George H.W. Bush in 1988. Ultimately, protection and regulation of the nation’s wetlands is mandated under the Clean Water Act of 1972.

“This project will expand our assessment and monitoring of non-tidal and tidal wetlands to include consideration of climate stressors,” says Hershner. “The project team will analyze climate-induced changes in downstream marshes, evaluate the connections between these marshes and the headwater wetlands that feed them, refine the protocol we use to identify the headwater wetlands at greatest risk, and identify management options for sustaining headwater acreage and function. These outcomes will inform strategies for long-term protection of headwater resources in Virginia.”

“There’s growing evidence that headwater wetlands are especially vulnerable to changing climate and land use,” says Bilkovic. “Providing tools to help local governments and citizens maintain the ecological functions of these wetlands is imperative for protecting the quality of the entire downstream watershed.”

Importance of historical data

Dr. Kirk Havens, another member of the VIMS research team, stresses the importance of historical data to the success of the project. “VIMS' historical tidal marsh inventory provides a unique way to help understand how rising seas are causing marsh and wetland vegetation to change through time,” he says.

VIMS researchers began the inventory in the early 1970s, carefully mapping the size and location of all Virginia’s tidal wetlands, including a quantitative description of the different plant species in each. “The availability of monitoring data from the 1970s to compare to present conditions is really fortuitous,” says Havens, “because it captures the time when Virginia began to experience accelerated sea level rise at rates that threaten wetlands sustainability.”

Wetland Program Development Grants

A headwater creek in winter. Photo by D. Malmquist.The VIMS project is one of six funded through EPA’s most recent round of Wetland Program Development Grants. Other recipients are the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, Penn State University, Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources, and the Maryland Department of Environment.

Wetland Program Development Grants are used to build and refine comprehensive wetland programs, with priority given to funding projects that address the three priority areas identified by the EPA: developing a comprehensive monitoring and assessment program; improving the effectiveness of compensatory mitigation; and refining the protection of vulnerable wetlands and aquatic resources.

For more information about the wetlands grant program, go to: http://water.epa.gov/grants_funding/wetlands/grantguidelines/index.cfm