DEEP: Tidal Wetlands

Living on the Shore
Tidal Wetlands

Tidal wetlands are flat, vegetated areas that are subject to regular flooding by the tides. The most familiar form of tidal wetland, and a defining feature of Connecticutís shoreline landscape, is the coastal salt marsh characterized by such plants as salt marsh cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora), salt meadow cordgrass (Spartina patens) and spikegrass (Distichlis spicata). Tidal wetlands provide more than scenic vistas; they are an indispensable part of the Long Island Sound ecosystem, serving such functions as waterfowl and wildlife habitat, pollution control, floodwater storage, and nurseries for fish and shellfish.

Until about twenty-five years ago, tidal wetlands were considered swamps and wasteland, useful only when dredged, drained, or filled. As an unfortunate result, over one-third of Connecticutís tidal wetlands have been lost since colonial times. Our remaining tidal wetlands, therefore, are all the more important to the health of Long Island Sound and deserve special efforts to protect them.

Since the implementation of the Connecticut Tidal Wetlands Act in 1969 and the Connecticut Coastal Management Act in 1980, the most serious threat to our remaining tidal wetlands is posed not by large-scale development projects but by piece­meal degradation of small wetland areas in private lots and back yards. Degrading tidal wetlands by filling, dredging, dumping of brush or debris, or blocking tidal flow is perhaps the greatest damage that individuals can inflict upon the Sound.

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In addition to the loss of resource and habitat values, the destruction of tidal wetland vegetation can lead to colonization by nuisance species, such as the invasive common reed, Phragmites australis. Phragmites has relatively less wildlife habitat value, and its thickly-growing stalks often block access to the water. In summer, the dry Phragmites stalks are highly combustible and can create a fire hazard. Accordingly, while the Department discourages regular mowing of tidal wetland vegetation to create the appearance of a lawn, we encourage the cutting of Phragmites, which can sometimes assist recolonization by wetland species. In sum, if a coastal property owner has tidal wetlands on or adjacent to his or her land, practicing good stewardship of those wetlands can make a major contribution towards the preservation of Long Island Sound.

Moreover, in many cases the environmental health of Long Island Sound will actually be improved by taking measures to restore tidal wetlands. If coastal property includes filled or degraded tidal wetlands, the removal of fill material, the lowering of surface elevation, and the restoration of tidal flow can facilitate the recolonization of tidal wetland vegetation, and coastal permit applicants are encouraged to assess the feasibility of such work.

The DEEPís nationally known Wetlands Restoration Unit, which operates specialized low ground pressure equipment and has an enviable track record in restoring degraded wetlands, is available to offer advice and, in appropriate cases, to conduct authorized restoration work on private property. Contact DEEPís Office of Long Island Sound Programs at (860) 424-3034 or the Tidal Wetlands ­Restoration Unit at (860) 642-7239 for more information on tidal wetlands ­restoration.

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