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Residents say it's time again to rescue marsh

PLYMOUTH -- The Ellisville Marsh, the only saltwater marsh on the 15-mile Plymouth shoreline, is dying because its outlet channel has been blocked by sand, according to a newly formed citizens group trying to save the rich ecosystem that was once the lifeblood of the Ellisville Harbor community.

The Friends of the Ellisville Marsh say the channel has been blocked repeatedly by storms throughout the town's recorded history and reopened by the efforts of the people who depended on it, using shovels and horses to punch a hole through the barrier. The new group wants to restore the channel the same way, using a bulldozer this time.

"Our short-term plans are to reopen the channel in the historical location," the Friends' Eric Cody said. But they will need permission from federal and state environmental regulators. Permit applications, the group notes, have run into problems before.

The marsh's channel outlet was closed by a coastal blizzard two years ago which shut down Plymouth for a week. The storm altered the channel's shape, pushing the stream along the coast several hundred yards to the south before it found a new outlet. The result is that tidal water can still flow into the marsh, but it doesn't easily flow out.

The loss of regular tidal action to flush out the marsh has so far reduced about one-third of it to mudflat, killing vegetation and causing the native marsh grass called Spartina alternaflora to migrate inland. "The back of the marsh is drowning," Cody said.

Fish and other salt marsh animals rely on the plants and clean water. Large bass continue to swim in on the tide, but can't remain in the marsh because of poor water quality.

The channel was last opened by bulldozer four years ago, after a period of deterioration traced back to a storm in 1991. The 55-acre marsh bounced back after the channel to the ocean was opened, bringing back the cleansing tidal flow. Vegetation gained ground, and fish and birds, including osprey and willets, returned.

Historically, coastal farmers harvested marsh grass as feed for livestock, fished there, and caught eels. Today the marsh is divided between Ellisville State Park and a preserve controlled by the Wildlands Trust of Southeastern Massachusetts.

The job of reopening the outlet is relatively inexpensive. "We're willing to raise the money," Cody said. But permitting, he said, can be both expensive and contentious. The Army Corps of Engineers, the primary federal permitting authority, has been "fairly receptive."

Some state agencies appear less so, Cody said, judging from comments on an earlier permit application. Their position on coastal management is "let mother nature run its course," he said. But if nature runs its course, the channel won't stay open, and the marsh will die, he said.

Last year a nearby resident, seeking to stop erosion of a bluff that threatened his property, applied for a permit to dig the channel but failed to have a necessary water quality permit and was prevented from completing the job.

A Department of Environmental Protection spokeswoman, however, said the Friends could apply for a "a 10-year permit for maintenance to keep the channel open." Spokeswoman Theresa Baroa said the Plymouth resident who applied for a maintenance permit last year failed to apply for a needed water quality permit. The DEP then took out a cease-and-desist order to stop the project.

Cody said state environmental officials should be championing the effort to restore the Ellisville Marsh. The state has reopened tidal inlets to save other salt marshes, he said.

The Friends' membership is 30 households and growing, with support from locals who remember what the marsh was like and kayakers who visit to bird-watch.

"There are a lot of people with connections to this place," Cody said.

Robert Knox can be contacted at