Resiliency & Restoration at Sunken Meadow Park (Part I)

This spring, Save the Sound will begin work on our biggest habitat project yet: the Sunken Meadow Comprehensive Resilience and Restoration Plan funded by the Hurricane Sandy Competitive Grant Program. This multi-year, multi-phase, and multi-million dollar project will improve this unique ecosystem on the north shore of Long Island, bringing abundant wildlife and eco-conscious tourists and students to a thriving marsh, river, and coastal park.

This is the first of a two blog series about Sunken Meadow! In this post, we will introduce Sunken Meadow State Park and learn about the restoration of tidal flow to Sunken Meadow Creek.

About Sunken Meadow State Park
Located in Smithtown, NY, just north of Kings Point on Long Island, Sunken Meadow State Park manages the estuary at the mouth of Nissequogue River, which meets Long Island Sound at the park’s eastern edge. The park consists of about 500 acres of coastal forest, 80 acres of salt marsh, 55 acres of tidal creek and marsh, 35 acres of coastal dunes, 3 miles of Long Island Sound beachfront, and more. In all, this 1300-acre park is enjoyed annually by over two million people. Popular activities include picnicking, swimming, kayaking, canoeing, paddle boarding, fishing, walking, jogging, hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding. There are also a 27-hole golf course, driving range, and ball fields.

Sunken Meadow State Park is also part of the Nissequogue River Stewardship Area – one of eleven inaugural sites chosen by the Long Island Sound Study.

Sunken Meadow Tidal Restoration
Historically, Sunken Meadow Creek flowed freely through the park and connected over 120 acres of marsh habitat with the Nissequogue estuary and the Sound. In the 1950s, a boom in park attendance was accompanied by a flurry of construction activity. The Army Corps of Engineers built an earthen dike across Sunken Meadow Creek, blocking its tidal flow and fundamentally changing the marsh’s plant community.

An earthen dike was built on Sunken Meadow Creek in the 1950s, altering the marsh habitat for over 60 years.
An earthen dike was built on Sunken Meadow Creek in the 1950s, altering the marsh habitat for over 60 years.

Starting in 2008, New York Parks and partners including the Long Island Sound Study, NOAA Restoration Center, NYS DEC, USFWS, and CFE/Save the Sound began studying the feasibility of restoring tidal flow to Sunken Meadow Creek. In 2011 the study proved it was possible, and CFE/Save the Sound was awarded a grant of $125,000 to analyze, design, and complete the project. Partnering with Louis Berger Group, a New Jersey-based engineering firm, we designed a single-span bridge to replace the earthen dikes and restore natural tidal flow to 120 acres of former estuary habitat. Our bridge project design was completed in October 2012 with construction planned to begin soon after. It would prove to be perfect timing.

The dike was blown away by Hurricane Sandy.
The dike was blown away by Hurricane Sandy.

On October 29, 2012, Superstorm Sandy slammed the tri-state area. At Sunken Meadow, its massive storm surge blew through the dike and reopened the creek to the Nissequogue estuary for the first time in 60 years.

Without the earthen dike or a bridge, park rangers were left without emergency vehicle access to a large portion of the park. New York Parks was able to use restoration team’s design of the single-span bridge to access emergency funds for the project very quickly. Almost exactly one year after the storm, the single span bridge installation was complete.

The new bridge was constructed in October 2013.
The new bridge was constructed in October 2013.

Almost immediately after Sandy, we could already see the benefits of restored tidal flow at Sunken Meadow Creek. In an essential first step, invasive common reed (Phragmites australis), which had dominated the marsh for decades, was being replaced by healthy native smooth cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora).

Two years later, as the marsh continues to grow in size and resiliency, the native plant community is attracting a diversity of fish and wildlife—particularly migratory birds. Fish use the salt marsh as a nursery, and waterfowl come back to the productive waters. Sunken Meadow State Park is now home to a free-flowing tidal creek and a fantastic, intact salt marsh.

Click here for a short video history of Sunken Meadow, Hurricane Sandy, and our bridge project, courtesy of the Long Island Sound Study In our next blog post, we’ll tell you all about our upcoming project bringing green infrastructure and marsh restoration techniques to Sunken Meadow State Park. Stay tuned!

Posted by Tyler Archer, CFE/Save the Sound

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