Floating Workshop Points Out Connecticut Coastal Change

By JUDY BENSON | July 1, 2013

A late 1800s painting from the Florence Griswold Museum’s collection might seem an unlikely means of illustrating a point about coastal change.

But a slide of the painting, superimposed over a current photograph of Griswold Point in Old Lyme, provides a striking example just how dynamic the shoreline has been.

The image, part of a presentation at the recent Thames River Basin Partnership annual Floating Workshop, juxtaposed the impressionist painting of people gathered for a picnic around a large rock at the tip of the point, atop the picture of the point today.

That rock now sits surrounded by the waters of the lower Connecticut River, about 300 feet from what is now the tip of the point, a barrier beach owned by the Nature Conservancy that is a nesting area for piping plovers and least terns.

The sand that used to connect the rock to the rest of the point is gone, probably carried to the east.

“Griswold Point is a sand spit, and it’s very dynamic,” said Joel Stocker, assistant extension educator at the University of Connecticut Extension Center, who gave the presentation at the Coast Guard Academy to 38 representatives of state, federal and local groups with a common interest in the Thames River watershed.

Stocker’s presentation was based on a project he is doing to identify how the contours of the state’s coastline have changed from the 1880s to the present. Information he has gathered for project, funded by Connecticut Sea Grant, provided the material for a lesson in keeping with the basic theme of this year’s workshop: coastal change. With sea level rise and severe storms such as Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Sandy altering coastline areas dramatically, it is becoming increasingly important to understand just how they are changing, Stocker said.

“I’m trying to find out if there are trends,” he said.

His analysis, he said, will provide useful information for the state and towns in making coastal management decisions, and for educating the public. In his presentation, he showed historic and current maps and photos of Bluff Point in Groton, Waterford Town Beach and Ocean Beach Park and Mitchell Beach in New London, and the unique way each of those areas has changed. One of the issues facing these and other coastal areas, is that natural rebuilding of dunes and beaches with sediments carried downstream has been impeded by dams, pavement and other structures.

“In the past,” he said, “a lot more sediment came down rivers. We’ve ended up cutting off the sand budget in a lot of areas.”

Jean Pillo, watershed conservation coordinator at Eastern Connecticut Conservation District and organizer of the workshop, said scientists are also concerned that overbuilt shorelines leave few areas for tidal marshes as they are pushed inland by rising sea levels. Marshes are critical to the health of the entire marine ecosystem.

“We’re not making room for these marshes to get restored,” she said.

After Stocker’s presentation, the “floating” portion of the Floating Workshop began. The group boarded small vessels provided by the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and Project Oceanology for a 15-minute ride on the Thames River, spray streaming over the bow to shower the passengers along the way. The boats landed at Mitchell Beach for a presentation about how changes at one part of the coast are being managed.

Victoria Brennan, chemistry professor at Mitchell and advisor to the college’s environmental club, explained how the college has been restoring dunes, erecting fences to prevent erosion and removing invasive plants.

“We’ve been trying to use this as an outdoor lab for our students,” said Brennan, who helped start the environmental studies program at the college six years ago.

Irene and Sandy both dealt huge setbacks to the efforts to restore the beach, dumping large amounts of debris and cutting huge swaths in newly rebuilt dunes. Instead of giving up, Brennan said, the college decided to enlist students in another dune restoration effort, and so far it seems to be working. After removing the debris, student volunteers replaced the fence and laid donated Christmas trees along the edge of the dunes to help trap sand.

“We’re excited now that the dunes are starting to come back,” she said, pointing out the partially buried trees, their needles brittle and brown. “In some ways, Irene and Sandy gave us a wonderful outdoor experiment for us to do with our students.”

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