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After more than a century, Wellfleet's Herring River salt marsh comes back to life

Jennette Barnes
Members of AmeriCorps Cape Cod have begun clearing brush from along the Herring River in Wellfleet, marking the start of hands-on labor for the river restoration project. With them are AmeriCorps staff and, in green, restoration ecologist Tim Smith of the Cape Cod National Seashore.
Herring arial 2.JPG
National Park Service
The dike at Chequessett Neck Road in Wellfleet blocks saltwater tides from coming into the Herring River.

In the Wellfleet of a century gone by, the leaves crunching under my feet wouldn’t be here, so close to the Herring River. The river used to be the center of a productive salt marsh — much wider and wetter than it is today.

Soon it will be again.

After decades of planning, hands-on work has begun to restore natural tidal flow to the Herring River and bring back hundreds of acres of salt marsh. It’s the state’s largest-ever repair of a damaged estuary.

It’s a chilly day in November. I’ve walked from the end of High Toss Road in Wellfleet into the restoration area with Kat Garofoli and Michael Andranovich, leaders at AmeriCorps Cape Cod.

When we catch our first glimpse of the river, you can hear the surprise in my voice.

“Oh, this is it?”

Yes, Andranovich says, this is it.

The river looks like a stagnant creek running through the woods, and it’s mostly fresh water.

In the river’s natural state, saltwater tides would flow up from Wellfleet Harbor. But a dike built where the river meets the harbor has blocked the tides for more than a hundred years.

As we move deeper into the woods along the river, we hear a hedge trimmer revving up. Members of AmeriCorps are here doing a few days’ service cutting brush.

One of the crew, Lily Gooding, says at first, they could barely get their tools out to the site.

“We could hardly kind of bring anything in, because the vegetation was so thick,” she says. “But now there's obviously a lot more space. … Just a lot of clearing, a lot of, like, Greenbriar thorns, all of that.”

Their work will allow access to a berm, created many years ago along the riverbank when the Herring River was artificially channelized to drain the surrounding land.

If the soil in the berm is clean enough, it will be spread on parts of the marsh that have sunk too low, says Tim Smith, a restoration ecologist with the Cape Cod National Seashore.

“It's kind of like a sponge on your kitchen counter. As it dries out, it kind of shrinks and ... it starts to sink,” he says.

At the same time, upland plant species have been filling in. An oak tree — one of many — is growing on low-lying ground, where the salt marsh should be.

“That's probably growing at a lower elevation than the salt marsh in Wellfleet Harbor,” Smith says. “So this is essentially below sea level.”

The town of Wellfleet and the National Seashore are leading the restoration.

The biggest step will be removing the dike at Chequessett Neck Road and replacing it with a bridge. The bridge will have gates, to let more water in, yet allow the flow to be controlled.

To prevent private properties that border the area from flooding, smaller water-control structures will be built upstream, says Geoffrey Sanders, chief of natural resource management and science for the Seashore.

“There's a few houses — a few residents — where the project is helping to move their wells that might be affected,” he says.

He says the combined cost of the bridge and other structural work is almost $60 million, but restoring the salt marsh will bring benefits for both habitat and climate — in part because of the nature of saltmarsh plants.

“They're much more efficient at capturing and storing atmospheric carbon than freshwater wetland plants are,” he says. “That's a huge bonus.”

Right now, the Herring River contains fecal coliform bacteria — not from septic systems, but from wildlife waste and the lack of natural flushing.

That’s why 30 acres on either side of the dike have been closed to shellfishing for many years.

Phase 1 of the project will see the gates under the new bridge open enough to inundate 570 acres with water.

Phase 2 is still being planned and permitted, but the ultimate goal is full restoration of tidal flow, reaching 890 acres.

Back at the river, Smith says many people are working together to make this happen, including the very active Friends of the Herring River group, National Seashore volunteers, Ducks Unlimited and other conservation groups, and private landowners.

And although the brush cutting at the water’s edge is just one small part, it means the landscape is finally changing for the better.

“Oh, it's really exciting,” he says. “I've been working on this for a really long time and … just seeing what these guys are doing, seeing something change, something happening … after all this time. It's really gratifying.”

The new bridge replacing the Chequessett Neck Road dike is expected to be finished, and begin letting tides in, in 2025.

Jennette Barnes is a reporter and producer. Named a Master Reporter by the New England Society of News Editors, she brings more than 20 years of news experience to CAI.