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Shinnecock rebuild, fortify beach damaged by superstorm Sandy

Chris Pickerell, marine program director with Cornell Cooperative

Chris Pickerell, marine program director with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County examines Spartina alterniflora (marsh grass) with Heather Rogers, project director of Coastal Habitat Restoration Project at Cuffees Beach on the Shinnecock Indian Reservation on Thursday, Aug. 25, 2016. Credit: Randee Daddona

Thousands of feet of shoreline on the Shinnecock Indian reservation have been restored and fortified with a $3.7 million federal grant that put tribe members to work and braced the beach for future storm impacts.

The project, led by the tribe and the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County, rebuilt the beach beyond its original state, with sand from a nearby Shinnecock Canal dredging project by Suffolk County’s Department of Public Works.

On Thursday morning, children played in the shallow waters of the beach, which faces west toward the Ponquogue Bridge, a milestone for the areas of the 800-acre Southampton reservation that was devastated by superstorm Sandy in 2012.

The roughly 2,000-foot-long beach gained from 80 to 150 feet of shoreline width, all now protected by boulders to reduce wave impacts and beach grasses to prevent sand erosion. The project extends into the water, where eel grass is being planted and oysters and other shellfish are being seeded to filter the water and restore aquatic life.

“The last time I saw this much sand here I was eight years old,” said Daniel Collins Sr., a tribal trustee and vice chair of natural resources.

The project employed 12 Shinnecock Indian Nation tribal members to work during the two-year restoration. Around a third of the $3.7 million budget paid to bring sand to the beach.

“We want this to be a showpiece and an example for how you can rebuild a living shoreline,” said Kimberly Barbour, marine program outreach manager for Cornell.

On the beach Thursday, Dorothy Dennis, a longtime tribal resident and wife of former tribal leader Avery Dennis Sr., pointed to a home two hundred feet away that had been threatened by flooding during Sandy. “That’s my daughter’s home,” she said, recalling the erosion. “This will protect it.”

At a ceremony to mark the occasion, tribal members on Thursday performed a thank you song with drums and vocals.

“It’s brought people back to the beach,” said Bryan Polite, chairman of the tribal trustees, the tribe’s governing body. “Our elders remember when it was like this all the time.” Polite said the tribe plans to apply for additional grants to continue the restoration and fortification project all around the reservation’s water-front land.

“We’re working on a shoreline management plan, we want to keep the work going for the entire peninsula,” said Shavonne Smith, environmental director for the nation. “We’re trying to protect what we have here because the ecosystem is not going to do it on its own.”

Chris Pickerell, director of marine programs at Cornell, said the project was the largest of its kind undertaken by Cornell, and provided benefits well beyond immediate beach. One addressed a mosquito problem by opening a cut to a pond that sits adjacent to the beach, flushing the water with each new tide and introducing fish to eat mosquitoes and larvae. “It’s all part of the tribe’s strategic plans and goals,” he said.

It’s also provided education opportunities, said project manager Heather Rogers. “Everybody’s learning about the living components of the beach,” she said. “We’ve seen a revival in animals and different species here. It’s done a lot of good.”

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