November 13, 2006

Dredging Up Answer to Vanishing Islands: Plan Would Solve Commerce, Environment Concerns

By Rona Kobell, The Baltimore Sun

Nov. 13--The Maryland Port Administration and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are proposing to spend more than $1 billion to rebuild two islands in the Chesapeake Bay -- the government's latest plan to use dredge spoil from shipping channels to enhance the environment.

The two agencies propose to remove tons of silt and sediment from the state's waters, then haul it down the bay to create a 2,000-acre wildlife preserve at James Island, a spit of land off the coast of Dorchester County that is quickly vanishing. The two agencies also want to replenish the shoreline at nearby Barren Island, another fast- disappearing remnant of land near Hoopers Island.

The James project is expected to cost $1.1 billion. The Barren project would cost about $30 million.

Both projects, which would be similar to the government's restoration of Poplar Island, are expected to attract a vast array of wildlife, including eagles, terrapins and great blue herons. Both are also expected to help stem erosion at Taylors and Hoopers islands -- inhabited peninsulas where rising sea levels cause frequent flooding.

But the main push is coming from the needs of commerce. Port officials say they must clear approach channels so that big coal and container ships can come and go, and to do that they need a place for about 3.2 million cubic yards of sediment each year -- enough to fill M&T Bank Stadium twice.

The island projects, if approved by Congress, could handle the port's disposal needs for two decades or so, said Scott Johnson, a Corps of Engineers project manager.

The proposal is expensive and approval is not certain -- especially because the plan would have to compete for funding with corps projects in post-Hurricane Katrina Louisiana. But Congress approved a similar project at Poplar Island, which has been built up over the past decade at a cost of about $400 million.

"It's a lot of money," Johnson said of the James and Barren proposal. "But when you look at the fact that you have to do something with the dredge material and you have the opportunity to turn it into something beneficial, people are pretty much endorsing it."

The proposal includes a $250 million expansion of the Poplar Island project. Johnson is hoping Congress approves the plan next year so the agency can begin design work in 2009 and, after extensive construction of dikes, have James ready to accept new material by 2018.

Island dredge projects mark a rare intersection of environmental and economic interests. Leaving the sediment in the bay not only would jeopardize the port's $1.9 billion shipping industry, but it could also harm oysters and other marine life that need a clean bottom and good water quality to survive. Using the material to restore islands creates habitat. It also creates construction-related jobs and pumps millions of dollars into the local community, said Frank Hamons, the port's deputy director of harbor development.

"James Island is one of the best ways to use the material," Hamons said. "It will restore a habitat. It's unique. And it will protect the shoreline."

The federal government would pay to dredge the channels and for three-quarters of the island-building cost; the port would pay the remaining portion.

Officials from both agencies acknowledge that the cost is high, in part because the project involves much more than simply hauling and dumping the material. But it is one of the few options left -- a 1990 state law forbids dumping the spoil in the bay's deep trough. And it has the benefit of creating disappearing natural habitats -- among them, uplands, marshes and sandy beaches.

Baltimore County's Hart-Miller Island was the agencies' first island dredge project. The 1,100-acre site, which was built in the mid-1980s and will be accepting dredge material until 2009, is now a public park.

The two agencies then turned to Poplar Island, a once-thriving farming community off the Talbot County coast that was also known as a resort for prominent Democrats, among them Franklin D. Roosevelt. The crescent-shaped wedge had been fighting constant erosion for more than a century; by the early 1950s, the last residents left the island for good.

When the corps arrived at Poplar in the mid-1990s, all that was left were three remnant islands of about an acre each. The agencies embarked on a plan to restore Poplar to its original footprint of 1,140 acres, hoping that the island would become a welcome mat for fish and birds that are getting pushed out of mainland habitats by development pressures and natural predators.

The rebuilt Poplar Island has been that and more, with 126 species making it their home.

On a recent visit, mummichugs and crabs were swimming near the 700,000 plugs of native wetland grass that the corps has planted. Cormorants and sanderlings grazed on the island's many mud flats, while great blue herons lounged on the sand. Next to the rocky perimeter ringing the island, a common loon cruised along through the bay's waters, traveling easily between Poplar and two small neighboring islands.

"We just never expected that the shorebirds were going to show up here," said Chrissy Albanese, a wetlands education specialist. "They've just found us."

Port administration officials acknowledge that dredge islands are not always popular. In Anne Arundel County, for example, residents successfully fought plans to build an island in the Patapsco River. But in Dorchester County, some residents went to the port administration, asking officials to consider James Island for their next project.

Joseph Coyne, president of the Dorchester County Shoreline Erosion Group, was one of the first to approach port officials. His organization, which formed after Hurricane Fran, is seeking to help Lower Shore residents protect their property from rising sea levels and brutal winds. Coyne believes that James and Barren would act as barriers for those harsh north winds, slowing down the waves before they hit the Dorchester shore. That would help with the frequent flooding on county roads, which residents say has increased in the past 10 years.

"All of us wish they could do it sooner," Coyne said. 'They're doing the best they can, but they have to go through Congress and their own bureaucracy."

Coyne is also hoping that the corps will use the islands as staging areas to create wetlands at the nearby Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge has lost 12 square miles of wetlands in the past half-century. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages Barren Island as part of the national refuge system, has been working to restore salt marshes there.

Like Poplar, James has a rich history. A Quaker landowner bought it to use as a hog pen in the 1600s, and soon its vast pastures were filled with settlers. Farmers grew tobacco, watermen built skipjacks and children studied in two island schools. Battered by northwest winds that had whittled it down over the centuries, it finally was abandoned in the early 1900s.

J. Court Stevenson, a marine ecology professor at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, has been visiting James Island for the past 30 years. He has planted grasses and examined the island's banks in an erosion study. He has also looked for remnants of graves and other signs of the settlers who once lived there.

For the sake of James' history and its potential for future habitat, Stevenson said he hopes the corps acts soon. "I've been arguing that we really have to try to preserve these places because they're really great wildlife refuges," he said. "They're an important part of the bay that really needs to be restored. In the next 50 years, they may be the best marshes that we've got."

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