Wednesday, February 21, 2024

New Plan Outlines Ways to Conserve Virginia’s Coastal Wetlands

In the three decades between 1980 and 2010, Virginia’s York River lost more than 20% of marsh area. By 2050, the region is projected to lose 40,000 acres to sea-level rise. (Adobe Stock)

GLOUCESTER POINT — A new plan takes an interconnected approach to saving Virginia’s coastal wetlands.

The aim of Virginia’s York River and Small Coastal Basin Roundtable is to conserve tidal wetlands and increase coordination among regional stakeholders. Virginia’s wetlands face multiple threats, from rising sea levels due to climate change to invasive species and commercial development. But 99% of the state’s coastal land is privately owned.

Andrew Larkin, senior program analyst at the Chesapeake Bay Office for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said public-private partnerships are a key component to making the plan work.

“There are funding opportunities, both at the state and federal level, where property owners can seek funds to help construct or maintain living shorelines on their property,” Larkin explained. “A living shoreline would be a desire to incorporate natural elements into a shoreline, rather than a traditional sea wall or something along those lines that doesn’t provide as many benefits.”

As beneficial as partnerships can be, having most coastal wetlands on private land still poses a challenge. He advised people to consider the benefits wetlands provide against climate change. The U.S. Geological Survey said wetlands can capture greenhouse gases and store them for hundreds of thousands of years.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said wetlands cover 5.5% of the 48 contiguous states, with one million wetland acres in Virginia alone.

Pamela Mason, senior research scientist for the Virginia Institute of Marine Science at the College of William and Mary, said the plan will affect stewardship of those wetlands in numerous ways.

“The plan helps frame specific places, like wetlands complexes that exist in the Middle Peninsula, as places to focus some of the research,” Mason pointed out. “To build on the wetlands that are already there; maybe do something that some people call pre-restoration; so, planning for wetlands migration.”

She stressed if implemented, the plan can create wetland growth. The plan was being developed before the U.S. Supreme Court ruling this spring in Sackett v. EPA, which ended federal protections for most wetlands. But Mason noted some state laws are still in place to protect them.

Support for this reporting was provided by The Pew Charitable Trusts.

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