Impacts & Management: Salt Marsh

Marsh Fire

Marsh fires like these used to be regular events in areas where marsh had been cut off from the tide. 

Restoring the Salt Marsh

Restoring the marshes involved removing old cross-channel dikes, installing new perimeter dikes, removing fill, and retrofitting culverts with new tide gates. 

Much of the land between the beach and the center of Fairfield was originally salt marsh. Beginning in the early years of English settlement and well into the 20th century, salt marshes were drained and mowed for hay, diked to create pasturage for animals, and filled in for development. Since the 1880s, it is estimated that a third of all tidal wetlands on Long Island Sound have disappeared, with alarming consequences for Fairfield residents. In Fairfield, less than 70 acres remain from an original 1,100 acres of coastal marsh.

As the beach area was developed in the late 1800s, some of the marshes were drained in order to eliminate mosquitoes and to provide additional area for houses. While Fairfield’s original mosquito control program was carefully applied, by the 1930s and 1940s it turned into an all-out effort to drain all the town’s salt marshes in order to make more use of the land, with work crews competing to see who could cut the most ditches in a day.

Filling in these marshes has had unforeseen consequences. Cut off from the tides by flood control dikes, salt marsh plants died and were replaced by tall grasses (Phragmites) whose dry stems easily caught fire. Without the mosquito-eating birds and fish in the marshes, pesticides like DDT were needed to control mosquitoes, and developed areas built on marsh land were subject to flooding. In the 1970s, the town began to restore some marsh areas in order to regain the ecological and protective benefits of these vital wetlands.