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The Changing Shape of the Cape & Islands: Herring River, Wellfleet

The Changing Shape of the Cape & Islands: Herring River, Wellfleet, Chapoquoit Beach & Black Beach, November/December 2017 Cape Cod LIFE |

A vintage photo of the dike. Courtesy of the Wellfleet Historical Society

The drying out of the peat has contaminated the surrounding water, Palladino says, observing, “The acidity in some portions of the Herring River is comparable to a lemon, which is unhealthy for fish.” In 1985 the river area north of the dike was closed to all shellfishing due to bacterial contamination of the water.

In 2005 the Town of Wellfleet and Cape Cod National Seashore began discussions about whether restoration of the Herring River was possible. Truro joined in the restoration plan as well in 2007. These discussions resulted in the Herring River Restoration Project.

“The Herring River Restoration Project is a rare opportunity to reclaim a once-vital lost ecosystem,” Palladino says. “It is the result of more than a decade of careful study and collaboration involving Wellfleet, Truro, the National Seashore and other state and federal agencies.”

Palladino says the project will include replacing the existing Chequessett Neck Road dike with a new bridge and tide gates, installing a Mill Creek dike and tide gates, elevating Pole Dike Road, and installing culverts and tide gates, removing the portion of High Toss Road that blocks tidal flow, and completing flood protection measures at Chequessett Yacht and Country Club and specified private properties.

The project would be the largest tidal restoration project undertaken in the Northeast United States, Portnoy says.

Leaving the dike in place would be detrimental. “If nothing changed, the marshes would continue to disappear,” Portnoy says, and “the estuary would continue to be a major source of mosquitoes and greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane.”

Palladino agrees. “Doing nothing continues to put the community and environment at risk. Without the project, we can expect all of the damage caused by tidal restriction to continue or worsen,” and that would lead to “closure of shellfish beds downstream of the dike, potential for fish kills due to poor water quality, and loss of the river’s herring habitat.”

“Maintaining the status quo is not a viable option,” Smith adds, noting that conditions in the river continue to degrade and if the dike remained in place, without proper maintenance, the tide gates will ultimately fail, causing sudden flooding for upstream properties.

“Herring River, once a jewel of the Outer Cape, is in serious distress,” Palladino says. “We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to recreate a natural tidal wetland system that we lost due to human actions, and if we fail to act, these conditions will persist and likely worsen over time.”

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