Hampton Beach Master Plan: Environment and Open Space
The section identifies the environmental conditions of the Hampton Beach and adjacent lands. It is based on information generated from assessor’s records, GIS data, previous plans, state records, and individuals who have specific knowledge of the area. The project area includes a large portion of the estuarine system, which is impacted by the adjacent uplands. Much of the developed portions of the project area directly border this system, and the complex interactions and impacts of land uses and activities and the dynamic wetland ecosystems are discussed later in this section.
The Hampton-Seabrook Marsh and Estuary lies within the Taylor River/ Hampton River sub-watershed of the Coastal Watershed. At 5,000 acres, it is the largest tidal marsh in New Hampshire. In Hampton, there are 1,554 acres of tidal marsh or coastal marsh along the Hampton and Taylor Rivers. This resource represents almost 20 percent of the Hampton’s land area, and almost 40 percent of the project area. Within the marsh estuarine system, there are a number of watercourses and bodies including Hampton River, Tide Mill Creek, Nudds Canal, Blind Creek, Nilus Brook, Eel Ditch, Meadow Pond, and Old Mill Pond (fresh water).
The Hampton-Seabrook Marsh and Estuary provides habitat for several rare and endangered plants and animal, migratory birds and other wildlife. It is important in the production of fish and shellfish. It offers flood protection for adjacent uplands and acts as a water quality filter by trapping silt and organic matter. These wetland resources are also highly valued for open space, recreation, and education.
Like all tidal marshes of the northeast, the Hampton marsh appears almost flat and contains intricate drainage channels and creeks lined by small cliffs, or ridges, dotted with pools and salt pannes. It also contains many man-made ditches. This estuarine system is inundated by daily high tides and includes the following features:
- High marsh (featuring a complex plant community)
- Salt meadow which is flooded during bi-monthly lunar tides
- Low marsh (found on the fringes along tidal creeks or estuaries)
A border zone, also known as the ecotone, is formed where the high marsh and the upland, or a freshwater wetland, merge. This transition zone between two ecological communities usually contains a high diversity of species (vegetation and animal), and serves as a buffer zone for the marsh.
The soils of these wetlands are organic peat deposits composed of plant remains in various stages of decomposition, and sand, silt and clay mineral particles.
The Hampton tidal marsh is an important resource that provides critical ecological and social functions including habitat for plants and wildlife, hydrology for water flow, quality open space, and education.
These resources provide habitat and reproduction areas for birds, wildlife, plants, and fish. They also provide valuable sources of food for waterfowl, fish, shellfish, and wildlife.
Tidal wetland vegetation is distributed according to tidal range, elevation, and soil salinity and type. As typical with most tidal marshes in this geographic area the two most common plant species are Spartina alterniflora found in the intertidal zone and Spartina patens found in the high marsh. Other species are listed below:
- Spike-grass, salt marsh gerardia, silver weed and sea milwort in the high marsh
- Tall reed, salt spray rose, seaside goldenrod and Virginia rose in the border zone
- Bayonet grass and glasswort in pannes
The primary wildlife groups include waterfowl, raptorial birds, shorebirds, wading birds, gulls and terns, song birds, terrestrial mammals, marine invertebrates, reptiles and amphibians. Among the waterfowl are black ducks, mallards, American goldeneyes, mergansers, buffle-head, blue-winged teal, and Canada geese. Raptorial species include marsh hawks and harriers. Shorebirds include the semi-palmated plover, killdeer, black-bellied plover, golden plover, lesser and greater yellowlegs, and a variety of sandpipers. Songbirds include the red-winged blackbird. Mammals that inhabit the marsh or nearby border zones include cottontail rabbits, muskrats, raccoons, foxes, and white-tailed deer.
In the larger creeks and rivers, a variety of finfish including flounder and striped bass can be found. Small fish such as Tomcod and killifish inhabit small creeks and ditches. Crabs and eels and soft-shelled clams can be found on the tidal flats. There are also scattered pockets of blue mussels and American oysters.
New Hampshire Natural Heritage Inventory
According to the New Hampshire Natural Heritage Inventory (December 2000), there are 26 known occurrences of rare species and exemplary natural communities within the project area. These findings were recently issued in a Natural Heritage Publication—Ecological Assessment of Selected Towns in New Hampshire’s Coastal Zone, (Nichols 2000). Appendix I identifies 12 plant species, ten natural communities, and four vertebrate species.
Several endangered bird species inhabit the marsh or nearby Hampton Beach environs. In 1997, the piping plover, listed as a federal and state endangered species, returned to nest in New Hampshire. Usually one or two nests are spotted at the Hampton Beach State Park, which has a protected nesting area; one nest was spotted during the 2000 season. A state endangered species, the common tern, now has approximately 40 to 50 nesting pairs in the Hampton salt marsh. A pair of Artic terns has also located to this area. Several salt marsh species of conservation concern also can be found including the willet, salt marsh sharp-tailed sparrow, and seaside sparrow.
Hampton’s tidal wetlands act as natural buffers and flood water storage areas by protecting uplands and storing excessive runoff from storms, then slowly releasing the excess water. These resources also maintain water flow. During times of low flows for rivers and streams, wetlands augment stream flow by discharging excess water. Finally, these resources provide water quality purification by trapping silt and organic matter.
These tidal wetlands provide open space and recreation opportunities for residents and visitors as well as scenic/aesthetic enjoyment. They also have historical and archeological value as an integral part the region’s settlement history, and have significance scientific value that can serve as a living learning environment.
While tidal wetlands provide high value for habitat and open space, they pose many development limitations for building roads and other structures. In New Hampshire, tidal wetlands are primarily regulated by the State through the DES Wetlands Bureau. The Hampton Conservation Commission, however, also plays a very active role in tidal marsh protection and enhancement. In some instances, the federal government may play a role especially for large projects such as dredging, or bank stabilization.
The Town mapped 26 tidal wetlands that were identified as "Prime" in the Hampton Beach project area. These wetlands are documented in a report to the Town — Identification, Documentation, and Mapping of Prime Tidal Wetlands in the Town of Hampton, NH (Richardson 1982). These wetlands are classified as "prime" due to their size, unspoiled character, fragile condition, and the ecological and social benefits. The prime status specifically prohibits filling or other alteration for development or other activities that would cause degradation of the present condition of the land without a duly noticed local public hearing. To date, the Town has not legally adopted these prime wetlands, and therefore, the Town has no legal authority to report these areas to the State as designated prime wetlands qualifying for additional protection under RSA 482-A.
The Town of Hampton has a local Wetland Conservation District that distinguishes between inland and tidal wetlands. Essentially all of the wetlands in the study area are tidal. The tidal definition uses the Prime Tidal Wetland definition derived from the 1982 Richardson study. Permitted uses include forestry, agriculture, wildlife and conservation areas, education, and recreation. Under specific circumstances, structures such as wharves and footbridges may be permitted by Special Permit. The regulation also specifies a 50-foot setback from all fresh and saltwater wetlands. The Conservation Commission reviews all wetland permit applications. It forwards them to the Planning Board and the state Wetland Bureau, which ultimately issues the permit. The Town also has a series of aerial photo-based coastal wetland maps prepared in 1986 to assist with identification and management of these resources.
The State of New Hampshire regulates activities in tidal marsh areas through the Wetlands Bureau of the NH DES under RSA 482-A, which requires a permit for any filling, dredging, or structure construction in wetlands. Tidal wetlands jurisdiction extends up to the highest observable high tide and includes a tidal buffer zone of 100 feet. Any activity within this zone is regulated based on the impact of the proposed activity and its distance from the marsh.
The Wetlands Bureau also regulates activity in sand dunes under the same act, which would affect areas in the eastern side the study area associated with the beach and dune system. The DES has prepared draft-revised rules for tidal wetlands and sands dunes in The Code of Administrative Rules that implement this act. These rules are scheduled to be implemented by late spring 2001.
The State also regulates activities in shoreland areas under the Shoreland Protection Act. Under this act, the State has jurisdiction within 250 feet of the high tide line of any tidal marsh. The State has established standards for uses, woodland buffer cutting, septic system setbacks and building setbacks.
The New Hampshire Coastal Program (NHCP), under the Office of State Planning, funds a Federal consistency officer solely for work in the tidal areas of the Seacoast, including Hampton. This work is as part of NHCP’s Federal Coastal Consistency Review Process, which involves state review of federal action and/or permit applications pursuant to federal laws and regulations to ensure that such activities are consistent with the state’s federally-approved coastal zone management plan and program.
Depending on the size and nature of an activity, the Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE) may have jurisdiction through Section 404 of the Clean Water Act. The ACOE may coordinate review with the EPA, NMFS, and the US Fish & Wildlife Service. Most state wetland permits fall into the category of programmatic general permit. That gives the ACOE the option to intervene after a 20-day review period, but in most instances it does not. The ACOE will take jurisdiction over projects of significant size, such as those greater than three acres, or involving development of a new marina.
Salt marshes need the flooding and draining of saline waters to create the conditions essential to the characteristic high marsh flora and fauna. Restrictions in flow create conditions for the growth of invasive species such as purple loosestrife, phragmites, and blue-green algae. Phragmites and purple loosestrife are a problem in some locations in the Hampton salt marsh. In addition, impounded or trapped waters prevent draining and augment mosquito breeding and a loss of natural predators such as fish and birds.
In the past, much filling and manipulation of the marsh system often restricted the natural flow of water. Consequently, portions of the marsh have become degraded. At present, however, the overall tidal flow in the Hampton salt marsh is good, and consequently is a relatively healthy marsh. Hampton has done much to restore the quality of the marsh. For example, several major restoration projects have been recently completed. After the Town replaced the culvert under Winnacunnet Road near Meadow Pond, tidal flow improved, flooding was reduced, and the purple loosestrife infestation diminished significantly. However, since the culvert replacement, significant erosion problems have occurred.
The State of New Hampshire has developed surface water quality classifications for all water bodies in the state. For the most part, surface waters are classified as either Class A or Class B. Class A is the highest quality and is typically designated for municipal water supplies. The Hampton River estuary is designated as Class B, meaning it is acceptable for fishing, swimming, and other recreational purposes. The estuary typically meets this standard. However, there is a caveat for tidal waters that are used for the growing and harvesting of shellfish for human consumption. In this instance, the standards must meet the criteria of the National Shellfish Program Manual of Operation that is under the jurisdiction of the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA). The key water quality parameter for allowing the harvesting of shellfish is the presence of fecal coliform. Wherever this standard is exceeded, shellfishing is prohibited.
In the 1980’s, the entire harbor was classified as "Restricted" because bacterial counts were higher than the FDA standards. This determination was based on limited sampling. Fecal coliform is typically related to human or animal waste. At present, the NH DES does not have a permanent baseline water quality monitoring station in the tidal portion of the Hampton River. However, for the past several years, NH DES and the Department of Health have established an aggressive water quality monitoring program that samples water quality on a much more frequent basis than in the past. The results of this monitoring indicate that after a significant rainfall, fecal coliform counts also rise significantly. However, approximately three days after rain events, fecal coliform counts typically drop to acceptable enough levels to allow shellfishing.
Consequently, some clam flats (i.e., Common Island Flat and Hampton/Browns Flat) in the harbor have been "Conditionally" opened on a limited basis— Fridays and Saturdays from November to May. These flats can be opened if the coliform counts in a given time period are below the standard for closure. Other areas of the harbor near Tide Mill Creek are closed since the Hampton waste treatment plant discharges into the creek.
The overall water quality of the estuary has improved in recent years as both Hampton and Seabrook have taken actions to reduce contaminant discharge. At present, almost all of Seabrook is on a public sewer. Hampton has also made significant progress in expanding sewer coverage. Several residences in Hampton Harbor, however, are not connected to the sewer system. The Town also installed a new dechlorination facility at the wastewater treatment plant. Remaining sources of estuarine pollution still include the Hampton Waste Water Treatment Facility and non-point source pollution from the impervious developed areas of Hampton Beach.
Sand Dune Degradation
Although there are limited sand dune resources in the study area, these areas should be protected and managed as they represent valuable habitats and act as natural storm barriers. Much of the original dune line has been destroyed, although there are remnants at Hampton Beach State Park and the area just north of the park. The beach area north of the Hampton Beach State Park north to the beginning of the seawall/street side parking area is bordered by residences and dead end streets, and has had significant dune degradation
During the past year, the NH DES has worked with students from Winnacunnet High School to install fencing in the state park dunes to control foot traffic and establish walkways to protect the dunes. Under this program, areas of the dunes were also re-vegetated. Although this fence provides many long-term habitat and flood-protection benefits, it was taken down during the summer of 2001.
A majority, but not all, residential and commercial users in the project area are on the Municipal Wastewater Treatment Plant. This is a secondary treatment facility employing an activated sludge process. It has a design capacity of 4.7 million gallons per day. The plant discharges into a tributary of Tide Mill Creek. At present, there is a moratorium on additional hook-ups to new developments.
This facility represents a threat to the marsh and estuary especially during periods of high stormwater runoff when the plant has difficulty treating additional loads. The stormwater discharged to the tidal wetlands is a source of high fecal coliform counts to the estuary, which contributes to the closure of shellfish beds for recreational harvesting.
There are three point industrial sources of pollution within the Hampton River Watershed each with an NPDES permit.
Untreated stormwater runoff from the Hampton Beach area flows into creeks, rivers, and drainage ditches. Stormwater drains enter the marsh and harbor as non-point discharge. There are approximately 200 untreated stormwater or other discharge pipes that enter directly into the Hampton-Seabrook Marsh and Estuary. In the Hampton Beach Study area, there are 16 direct discharge points between Fellows Avenue and the intersection of Brown Avenue and the Route 101 (see Figure 9).
The cumulative impact from development may also compromise water quality and the integrity of the salt marsh. Increased run-off from impervious surfaces, wastewater treatment plant overloading and malfunctions, faulty individual septic systems, and inadequate storm water drainage all contribute to the degradation of water quality.
Another source of nonpoint pollution is from marine engines, mainly 2-cycle outboards that discharge unburnt fuel directly into the water. Newly designed 4-cycle engines emit significantly less pollutants into the water. EPA mandated that by 2006, dealers could sell only these new low-pollution engines. The NH Department of Environmental Services and the NH Marine Trades Association have teamed up to encourage consumers to purchase and use cleaner-burning engines. These two groups entered into a voluntary agreement to accelerate the phase-in of the new low-pollution marine engines in New Hampshire before the EPA 2006 mandate.
Although there are only two marinas in the harbor—one state and one private—there is potential for contamination of the estuary from day-to-day operations and maintenance procedures. These uses also pose a potential threat of spills and/or dumped sewage from boats that could compromise water quality. A 1994 Sanitary Survey Report indicated that the Hampton River Marina and the presence of boats moored nearby had a negative impact on the shellfish flats.
Source: Shellfish Restoration Program, NH Department of Environmental Services.
Private Property Activity
In a number of areas along the fringe of the marsh, there are periodic encroachments by private owners. In particular, the areas of Island and Glade Paths include a number of cottages and homes that are essentially constructed in or very close to the marsh. While such structures might not be legal if they were to be built today, at present they represent a significant encroachment into the marsh environment. Any expansion or substantial reconstruction of these homes needs to be strictly regulated to ensure the public benefits associated with a healthy marsh system.
Analysis and Issues
The overall health of the marsh is good in terms of limited restrictions to tidal flow or areas of water retention on the high marsh surface. Several projects are underway sponsored by the Town and the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) to deal with moderate flow issues in the marsh. However to ensure the continued health of the marsh, invasive species, such as phragmites, need to be monitored and controlled through restoration projects.
Development in the watershed and areas immediately adjacent to the marsh impact the overall health of the marsh. These impacts contribute to the degradation of water quality and other important wetland functions. The also tend to fragment the significant habitat that the marsh provides for many waterfowl and wildlife species and fish.
In the Hampton Harbor area, ambient water quality during dry weather periods has improved, but water quality monitoring indicates a decline in quality after storm events. The water quality of the marsh is compromised by nonpoint pollution sources. Nonpoint sources impacting the marsh include stormwater, failed septic systems, development activity (residential and commercial), runoff from impervious surfaces, and other direct and indirect sources and activities.
Motorized recreational activities in the estuary and marsh, such as jet skis, are disruptive to the marsh. Impacts of motorized recreational uses include bank erosion, disruption of bird nesting, and nonpoint pollution (oil/ fuel spills).
The long-term preservation of the Hampton-Seabrook salt marsh and estuary is important to maintaining a healthy and diverse habitat for the numerous plant, bird, wildlife and fish species supported by the marsh. Fragmentation of the habitat by development encroachment and individual ownership uses is apparent and risks habitat loss and endangering species.
Abuse of Tidal Wetlands
Tidal wetlands are severely impacted by residents and visitors that dispose yard waste such as lawn clippings and hazardous household waste such as used motor oil directly into the marsh and into areas that runoff into the marsh such as storm drains and parking lots. Aside from formal education of the public, signs and brochures should be strategically placed to inform these people about the negative impacts to the environment and about alternatives to dumping wastes in and near environmentally sensitive areas.
The Seacoast region of New Hampshire has several environmental facilities that specialize in different marine fields. The following is a list of these programs.
Agricultural Education and Research Center
Hampton, Route 1
PSNH Science and Nature Center
Sandy Discovery Center
Great Bay Estuary, Stratham
Research, education and resource protection of Great Bay Estuary
Seacoast Science Center
Odiorne Point State Park, Rye
Rocky and tidal shores
Residents, public officials, and the tourist population could all benefit from educational efforts highlighting the functions of wetlands, especially in Hampton – Seabrook Marsh and Estuary. These would include the following:
- Providing habitat and reproduction areas for rare/endangered plants and animals, migratory birds and other wildlife, and fish and shellfish
- Identifying their hydrologic importance in tidal flow and flood control
- Promoting their aesthetic, historical and scientific importance
Lack of understanding of this complex system may contribute to potential future misuse and abuse.
The quality of air has important implications for people who live and visit an area, especially in an intensely developed and actively used recreation area. Hampton Beach must deal with air quality issues from two sources:
- It is in a non-attainment area for ozone as identified by the US EPA
- Emissions from idling cars produce air pollutants and offensive fumes that concentrate along some of the main roads
These two issues are explained in more detail in this section.
The Clean Air Act requires the US EPA to set National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) which protect the public health and "[allow for] an adequate margin of safety." New Hampshire’s ambient air quality standards are identical to the NAAQS. As of mid-1997, NAAQS existed for the following six pollutants:
- Nitrogen dioxide (NO2)
- Carbon monoxide (CO)
- Particulate matter smaller than 10 microns (PM10)
- Ozone (O3)
- Sulfur dioxide (SO2)
- Lead (Pb)
For each of the NAAQS pollutants, different regions of the U.S. are classified as either "attainment" or "non-attainment." The State of New Hampshire operates a network of air quality monitors located in each of ten state counties. These monitors measure a variety of air pollutants and are operated on a continuous basis.
Formation and Sources of Ozone
Cars, buses, and trucks are defined as mobile sources of air pollution because they generate three major pollutants: hydrocarbons and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), nitrogen oxides (NOx), and carbon monoxide (CO). VOCs react with NOx in the presence of sunlight and elevated temperatures to form ground-level ozone, a major component of smog. Ground-level ozone is the most serious air pollution problem in the northeast and Mid-Atlantic States.
Air Quality Programs
Ozone is the only pollutant that classifies Rockingham County as a "non-attainment" area. Therefore, this area is required to develop air quality plans and take particular steps on a specific timetable to demonstrate reductions in the pollutants that contribute to ground-level ozone.
There are no programs specific to the Hampton Beach area that addresses air quality. Rockingham County, however, has a motor vehicle emissions testing program, new motor vehicle standards, a gasoline vapor recovery program, and a federal reformulated gasoline program that are being used to restore air quality for ozone. The failure of a non-attainment area to achieve air quality standards on schedule can result in the following:
- Withholding of federal transportation funds
- An increased need to reduce emissions from industrial and business sources at a rate that could negatively affect their ability to expand or add new facilities
Local Vehicle Emissions
The Hampton Beach area has an acute problem with emissions (fumes emitted) from idling vehicles. Anecdotal information gained from interviews with people who work, visit, and live in the area revealed the degree of the problem. The common complaint is that many vehicles trying to travel along Ocean Boulevard, Ashworth Avenue, and some of the connecting roads, idle for many minutes. This situation is particularly acute during morning and afternoons, and during special events. The combination of a large volume of cars and long idle times results in poor air quality and fumes that create an offensive and undesirable environment.