Dredge spoil may offer hope against steady erosion of Smith Island

April 14, 1991|By John F. Yarbrough | John F. Yarbrough,Special to The Sun

RHODES POINT, Smith Island -- From the old frame hous overlooking the Rhodes Point harbor, Maxine Landon stared out over what once was a plush, sandy beach and recalled her youth and her early days as a mother. That beach now is under water from erosion by the Chesapeake Bay.

There were walks on the beach with her children and friends, there were picnics, and there was swimming by the beach.

There was the "Easter Monday" tradition when families went to the beach to cook and be together.

But those days have long passed. Rhodes and Tylerton, the two island communities on the western shore of this tiny barrier island, face the full force of the Chesapeake Bay's unmerciful waves, and Rhodes Point is now losing about 8 feet a year because of erosion.

These days, the water sometimes comes right up to the island houses and back yards.

For the watermen here, the erosion has done more than take away a beach and marshes. It is threatening their existence.

"It's not going to take that much more erosion before this town is gone," said Richard F. Geoghegan, a part-time resident who has a house in Rhodes Point.

"When the tide is high, a major storm would put these towns in imminent danger. A good hurricane during the summer could take thisplace out." For the last two decades the people at Rhodes Point and Tylerton have been looking for ways to fight against the disappearance of the land which some of their ancestors settled as long ago as 1657.

A possible savior is the Maryland Port Administration and the dredge spoil it needs to get rid of to keep the 120 miles of channels leading to the port of Baltimore clear and deep.

The Baltimore harbor's bane could become Smith Island's boon.

The port is seeking ways to use its regularly dredged materials toward beneficial uses.

The possibility of marrying the two causes prompted Mr. Geoghegan to approach Baltimore Harbor Director Frank L. Hamons and brought Mr. Hamons and others to the island earlier this month to look at the problem.

"My personal opinion is that they have to have something done soon," Mr. Hamons said.

"They don't have a lot of time. We need to see what is possible, and where the dredged materials would come from. The question is, 'What could we do and how could we do it?' "

The possibility of using the port's regularly dredged materials for Smith Island is part of a larger effort by the MPA to use the stuff -- often quality materials that include sand, gravel and shells -- for island restoration, beach replenishment and wetland and habitat creation.

Although it is not a new idea, it is gaining popularity again, particularly because the existing disposal sites don't have the capacity for the nearly 100 million cubic yards of material anticipated over the next 20 years.

It is also a reflection of the changing attitudes of area conservationists toward projects to fortify islands like Smith.

"Restoration of disappearing islands is becoming more and more popular," said Tom Reed of the Maryland Environmental Service.

"While it's not a new idea, it's coming back in vogue again. The importance of these islands, you can't put a dollar figure on it. It's irreplaceable, and you can't sit back and watch them disappear."

What drew Mr. Hamons, Mr. Reed and others to Smith Island was not just its need for wildlife and habitat preservation -- that's the need of most projects benefiting from MPA dredging materials -- but the threat that erosion poses to the island waterman culture.

After a big ice in Tangier Sound in 1977, the tide brought the ice to shore and caused it to pile as high as 30 feet.

Had it been high tide, the results could have been disastrous. In 1954, Hurricane Hazel devastated Rhodes Point.

With the island having eroded a great deal since then, there is concern that another big ice or hurricane could mean the end of that part of the island.

In the last 30 years, the population of Rhodes Point has decreased by half to 88. Tylerton has dwindled to 75 residents.

The problem for the MPA, however, is how much it would cost to transport the dredged materials to Smith Island and who would pay for it.

Most of the replenishment and restoration projects the port of Baltimore is already involved in, such as Pooles Island and Hart-Miller Island, are closer to the port.

The cost of transporting and unloading materials at Smith Island could run high, perhaps in the tens of millions.

In addition, a 2-mile-long sea wall to hold the new materials in place will have to be built.

For Mr. Hamons and others, that means drumming up support for the project from other state agencies, initiating studies of the area and checking out what government programs are available to help.

It means looking for other alternatives if the MPA, which is part of the Maryland Department of Transportation, can't help. It means waiting -- something that Smith Islanders are used to when it comes to getting help from the county or the state.

"We're not expecting any miracles," said Jennings Evans, head of the island's informal governing committee, "I think they'll get back to us short enough if they feel they can help, or if they ## can't. They won't drag us along. But they've got to take a look at it and try to get others involved."

In the meantime, the Chesapeake tides come up to Maxine Landon's yard, and when they hit the bank the water splashes on her windows. The windows dry with a salty film, which Mrs. Landon has to clean so that she can see the view.

"There aren't many people who can sit in their breakfast room and watch the sun rise and then go to the living room that evening and watch the sun set," she said. "We feel lucky until a storm comes, and then we don't feel so lucky."

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