National Fish & Wildlife Foundation Grant to Address Risks of Coastal Flooding

Professor to Lead Multi-Disciplinary Rutgers University Team in Development of New Strategies

The National Fish & Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) has awarded a two-year, $2.7 million grant to Dr. Qizhong (George) Guo to develop and implement strategies to mitigate coastal flooding in New Jersey. The project, “Strengthening Marshes Creek Through Green and Grey Infrastructure (NJ),” will focus on restoring vulnerable tidal saltmarshes damaged by Superstorm Sandy so they may serve as a natural buffer against future storm surges as well as healthy wildlife habitats.

Guo, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rutgers School of Engineering, will draw on his substantial research expertise in hydrology, urban stormwater and flood management, water environment protection and restoration, and green and sustainable water infrastructure to lead a cross-disciplinary team of colleagues from across the university.

“This grant gives us the opportunity to strategize, design and implement real, comprehensive solutions that will help make New Jersey more resilient and resistant to flooding,” says Guo.

A Unique Study to Restore Salt Marshes

Guo’s NFWF grant funds efforts to restore 190 acres of saltmarshes on both sides of Marshes Creek, a tidal creek tributary of the Rahway River. “We want to restore the ecological functions of the saltmarshes,” explains Guo. “This is one of the very few remaining saltmarshes in what is an essentially urban area. We’d like to restore ecosystems and habitats to make this a healthy saltmarsh, so that it will again be an oasis for wildlife.”

Joanna Burger, wildlife expert and distinguished professor of biology at Rutgers, will spearhead efforts to encourage the return of wildlife to the marshes. “People are beginning to see and understand that salt marshes are really a natural protective barrier or buffer against severe storms.”

Beginning in January, Burger and a team of students will be monitoring the marsh once a week for a year. “We’ll be taking a census that’s focused on waterbirds and marshbirds such as gulls, blackbirds, black ducks and sandpipers,” she explains. “However, we will record data on muskrats, diamond-backed terrapins and other wildlife we might find as well. This will provide a baseline for the project that will let us know if we are ultimately successful in our efforts.” The findings of the yearlong census will also contribute to the final project design and help determine what works to protect both people and wildlife.

“Our study is unique,” she stresses. “We want to be able to encourage habitat diversity to attract different species and provide food for them.”

Burger notes that so much native vegetation – like the marsh grass spartina -- is either gone or present only in limited quantities. Providing ample food for wildlife in both high and low marsh areas is another of the project’s key goals. 

Jean Marie Hartman, who teaches ecological design and conducts plant ecology research at Rutgers Department of Landscape Architecture, will anticipate and plan for changes in marsh vegetation that will restore marsh health and increase habitat diversity.

Since the saltmarshes are located in an industrial belt, Guo’s School of Engineering departmental colleague, environmental engineer Nicole Fahrenfeld, will look at marsh sediment quality to determine where and to what degree it can support the restoration of plant and animal habitats. “We’ll perform an array of chemical analyses to help determine sediment quality to help target project activities in areas with suitable sediment,” she explains. “We’ve already begun out work and plan to move quickly this spring.” 

“We have a good combination of expertise,” Guo says. “We’ll be assisted by students like doctoral student Bertrand Byrne, who worked on the grant proposal with me and who will help me manage project interactions with Rutgers, the city of Linden, outside engineers, and contractors.”

Restoring the saltmarshes has an additional benefit. “A healthy marsh will help mitigate flooding by functioning as a natural buffer at the height of a tidal storm surge,” predicts Guo. “Storm surges are likely to be higher than in the past, so we will need to figure out how to create an effective buffer.”

Mitigating Flood Damage

Guo’s team of Rutgers faculty and students will develop a flood mitigation strategy and a preliminary design, which will ultimately be finalized by professional engineers.  “One of the things we plan to do is open up an area near a freight railroad station with a sluicegate that will allow the flow of water from a tidal surge to be modified and controlled,” says Guo. This will also reduce risk for Tremley Point, a neighborhood in Linden that floods regularly because rainwater is unable to drain off.

Guo’s solutions will range from gray measures, such as constructing a sluice gate and improving drainage systems, to green efforts such as replanting the marshlands or collecting water in rain gardens.

Guo recently completed his first major Superstorm Sandy-related project. Guo’s Rutgers team was one of several leading New Jersey academic institutions that were commissioned by the Department of Environmental Protection to propose new ways to mitigate coastal flooding.

The studies proposed options such as bolstering vulnerable areas along the Hudson and Hackensack Rivers, the Arthur Kill, the Barnegat Bay watershed, and Delaware Bay with floodgates and extendable floodwalls, and sustaining salt marshes as the sea level rises.  Guo also recommended developing natural energy sources such as wind and waves to power essential pumps that are often unable to function if electricity fails.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is expected to incorporate study results and recommendations into their master plan for improving storm resilience in the North Atlantic region.

“We are thinking differently about flood mitigation solutions,” says Guo. “It’s our job here at the university to be at the forefront of this critical initiative.”

Story by Amy Wagner