Coastal Monitoring

Delaware Coastal Programs monitors various environmental factors to help understand the coastal environment. The data collected provide insights into complex estuarine ecosystems. They help state and local leaders understand the vulnerability and resilience of our coast. They help us understand the effects of a changing climate.

In 2017, the Delaware National Estuarine Research Reserve (DNERR) was named a Sentinel Site. It provides data as part of a national effort to understand climate change impacts on estuaries. It is part of a national network of National Estuarine Research Reserve (NERR) sentinel sites.


Kari St. Laurent, Ph.D.
Research Coordinator

System-wide Monitoring

The System-Wide Monitoring Program (SWMP) is a cornerstone of all National Estuarine Research Reserves sites. It has two major goals.

  • To support and establish local networks of continuous water quality, nutrient, and meteorological monitoring stations in representative protected estuarine ecosystems.
  • To help develop a nation-wide database of environmental conditions in the diverse estuarine habitats throughout the United States as represented by the NERR system.

Water quality monitoring is performed within the Blackbird Creek and St. Jones River watersheds using YSI EXO2 water quality sondes along the salinity gradient. Three stations are established along the St. Jones River at the following locations: Scotton Landing, Lebanon Landing, and Division Street. There is a fourth station at Aspen Landing located within a tributary along the St. Jones Reserve boardwalk. Three stations are established along the Blackbird Creek at the following locations: Blackbird Landing, Beaver Branch, and Taylor’s Bridge. Parameters are measured at a 15-minute frequency at each site and include: water temperature, specific conductivity, salinity, dissolved oxygen concentration and percent saturation, pH, turbidity, and water depth reference to NAVD88. Water quality data from Scotton Landing is available in real-time.

Meteorological monitoring takes place with a Campbell Scientific weather station located on the St. Jones Reserve boardwalk near the DNERR visitor center and at the Blackbird Creek. A vast array of parameters are recorded in 15-minute intervals including: air temperature, relative humidity, barometric pressure, photosynthetically active radiation, precipitation, wind speed, and wind direction. Meteorology data is available in real-time.

Nutrient monitoring occurs at each water quality station via monthly grab samples. Additional diel samples are collected at the Scotton Landing site through the use of an automated Isco sampler over a tidal cycle. Each sample is analyzed offsite at the DNREC Environmental Laboratory for the following nutrients and plant pigments: orthophosphate, nitrite + nitrate, nitrite, nitrate, ammonium, dissolved inorganic nitrogen, silica, chlorophyll-a, and pheophytin.

Additional information about SWMP and water quality, meteorological, and nutrient data for Delaware and all NERR sites can be found at the Centralized Data Management Office (CDMO).

Three long-term transects have been established at both the St. Jones and Blackbird Creek Reserves in an effort to monitor tidal marsh vegetation changes over time. Fixed points are assessed along each transect for vegetative species composition, stem density, vegetation height, elevation, and soil bearing capacity. Monitoring occurs biennially and began in 2012 for the St. Jones Reserve and 2016 for Blackbird Creek Reserve.

A series of sediment elevation tables are located along the St. Jones and Blackbird Creek Reserves to monitor changes in marsh elevation at the millimeter level. Surface elevation tables are measured twice a year and include deep rod, shallow rod and feldspar clay marker data. This data is critical for assessing marsh vulnerability to sea level changes.

Annual tidal marsh bird surveys are conducted monthly May through July at fixed callback locations along the St. Jones River. These surveys use the Saltmarsh Habitat and Avian Research Program (SHARP) protocol to assess the presence of important marsh birds such as the Clapper Rail. This effort will help in the local and regional effort to understand the health of these important organisms, especially in the face of sea level rise.

Nekton biodiversity is monitored along a salinity gradient in Blackbird Creek by conducting monthly trawl surveys from April through October. Surveys count, identify, and size the collected fish, crab, and shrimp species. This project began in 2017 will the goal to establish a long-term data set to assess patterns of biodiversity as well as the presence or absence of species.

Cooperative Monitoring Projects

Delaware Coastal Programs partners with other state, federal and education institutions to monitor and study the coastal environment.

The Reserve supplies expertise and logistic support for meteorological stations in the State in cooperation with the Delaware Environmental Observing System (DEOS). Both the St. Jones Reserve and Blackbird Creek Reserve meteorological tower data are available in real-time in DEOS.

Delaware Coastal Programs staff provides expertise in the monitoring of water quality parameters, total suspended solids, and water currents of the Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge restoration project. Multiple water quality sondes, Isco water samplers, and acoustic Doppler Current Profilers are operated and maintained by DCP staff to provide critical information for understanding and modeling this massive restoration project.