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From the Mobile Register Copyright 2003

Mon Luis Island Restoration
Perfect for Planting

By RUSS HENDERSON
MON LOUIS SLAND, AL - April 5, 2021 - Fifteen muddy volunteers and engineers trudged through the mire of Mon Louis Island at the mouth of Fowl River early Saturday morning, shovels in hand, sometimes sinking up to their knees as they planted plugs of black needlerush and other wetland species.

The day before, thunderstorms had flooded the area in 4 feet of water, but winds in the night had blown most of the water into Mobile Bay, leaving the area just barely accessible by foot. By the end of the day, those volunteers had completed a wetlands restoration project started five months ago by the Alabama Coastal Foundation.

"That kind of mud is hard to walk through, but it's perfect for planting," said Barry Vittor, a foundation member and a Mobile wetlands specialist whose company, Barry Vittor and Associates, designed and oversaw the project. "Really, we couldn't have asked for more perfect conditions."

The $67,000 Alabama Coastal Foundation project was unique in this area because it was done by volunteers and because it was "the right thing to do," Vittor said. Most such restoration projects take place because law forces companies to mitigate for wetlands they destroy with new construction, Vittor said.

For decades up till 1979, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers used the peninsula at the mouth of Fowl River as a dumping site for dredge spoil. The piled-up soil not only choked out native species and invited non-native species to live on the mound, it also caused the peninsula to start eroding, Vittor said.

Wetlands are adaptive to the dynamics of rising and falling water, Vittor said. Mounds of spoil dirt generally just erode when surrounded by water, and that's what it did; the peninsula has lost about 75 feet of shoreline - several acres - since 1979, Vittor said. The erosion threatened all the nearby land along Fowl River, he said.

"You lose that peninsula, you lose the protection that peninsula has provided against storms," Vittor said.

Saturday's planting marked the last of the project's three major stages.

In November, a trackhoe removed tons of dredge soil that had been placed on those 3 acres of Mon Louis Island decades ago by the Corps of Engineers.

In the months following, Vittor, his staff and other volunteers removed thousands of "common reed" plants from the land. The tall, white-topped reed grows naturally in local river uplands but it wouldn't have been as abundant in natural salt marsh wetlands.

Finally, this weekend, those reeds were replaced with more typical salt marsh species - black needlerush, smooth cordgrass and saltmeadow cordgrass.

"When the storms came, we wondered if we'd be delayed. We had to call off the first day of planting on Friday because the site was under four feet of water," Vittor said. But forecasts suggested an ideal day for planting Saturday. Volunteers planted about 4,000 wetland plants on Saturday alone, work they'd expected to take two days.

Over the next two years, Vittor's staff plans to periodically check the restored wetland and remove any new "common reed" found on the site.

"It ought to grow really fast. We expect the entire area to be covered over in three years," Vittor said.

Shell Oil Co. donated $25,000 of the project's fund, and the group used that money as a match to get an additional $42,000 grant from the nonprofit Gulf of Mexico Foundation.

"We applaud this project. They're restoring Juncus marsh, when we're concerned about losing marsh entirely from Mobile Bay," said David Yeager, director of the federally funded Mobile Bay National Estuary Program.

The estuary program wasn't involved in the project completed this weekend, but it may soon be involved in a neighboring project. The Alabama Coastal Foundation has applied to the estuary program for a $50,000 federal grant to purchase 5 adjacent acres on Mon Louis Island for a similar restoration program, Yeager said. Others have applied for the money, and the winner will be announced later this year, he said.

The Alabama Coastal Foundation, a nonprofit membership organization, was established in the spring of 1993. The group's programs include the Coastal Kids Quiz, Alabama CoastWatch, and Household Hazardous Waste Collection Days.

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