An innovative plan to restore a vanishing island in mid-Chesapeake Bay to its turn-of-the-century shape would use material dredged from shipping channels leading to Baltimore's harbor.
Advocates include an array of state, federal and private organizations. They say the plan could become a national model how to turn environmental lemons into lemonade by providing an ecologically positive use for the material created by channel maintenance.
"This will be an example for the rest of the country," said John Gill, a biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, one of the agencies involved in the project.
"Placement of dredged material is a problem nationally. . . . I think you'll see a lot of ports looking at this."
The project, now in the feasibility-study stage, would take clean material dredged from the Baltimore harbor's southern approaches and deposit it on what remains of Poplar Island, about 50 miles to the south. Poplar Island is northwest of Tilghman Island on the Eastern Shore, roughly opposite southern Anne Arundel County.
The dredged materials would restore the island to its shape, or "footprint," of a century ago. Until 1929, the island supported a thriving farming community. Now, time and tide have reduced it to a handful of land shards.
The restoration plan is notable for the high level of cooperation and enthusiasm it has generated among a multitude of agencies, many with a history of being at odds with each other.
Among those agencies are the Maryland Port Administration, Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Fisheries Association, Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Maryland Waterman's Association and the Environmental Protection Agency.
"It's a give-and-take; we're going to work with everybody," said Tricia Slawinski, the Maryland Port Administration's environmental and governmental affairs coordinator. "That's the uniqueness of this project."
'Lively, thrashing situation'
Numbers -- costs, cubic yards of dredged material, the size of the finished Poplar Island -- are still fluid, as engineers, biologists and shipping interests negotiate the details.
"It's still in a lively, thrashing situation," said Nick Carter, a fisheries biologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. "But I imagine we will reach some kind of compromise."
To date, a rough outline has been agreed upon, and the process would work this way:
The approaches to Baltimore's harbor are dredged each year to a maximum depth of 50 feet, part of the maintenance necessary to keep ships moving through the port -- about 3,000 of them a year.
Dredged material would be taken by barge south on the Chesapeake Bay and deposited in the area of Poplar Island, eventually building up and linking the island remnants into a single land mass of 820 to 1,370 acres.
The re-created island would become a mix of uplands, which are relatively high and dry, and wetlands, the marshy tidal areas that support so much of the bay's fragile ecologies, particularly bird life. How much of each is still being worked out, Mr. Carter said.
Environmental interests want lots of wetlands, which are better for birds, turtles and other bay life. Engineers and shippers would like to have lots of uplands because that would put more dredged material into the site.
Cost, duration unknown
Uncertainties include how much material would be dredged and how high and wide it would be stacked at Poplar Island.
Those decisions will determine the project's cost and duration, said Stacey E. Brown, who is the Poplar Island project manager )) in the Army Corps of Engineers.
Preliminary price estimates for the project, which could take nine to 20 years, range from $39 million to $100 million. The costs are expected to be shared, with the federal government assuming 75 percent and state government paying the remaining quarter, Ms. Brown said.
She said the dredged material would not come from the Patapsco River. Material from there is classified as contaminated.
"It's mainly clean sand -- we don't anticipate any metals or contaminants," she said of the Poplar Island material, and it would be tested regularly.
"It's stuff running off farmland and residential material," added Mr. Gill, the fish and wildlife biologist. "It's upland runoff, coming down the Susquehanna River."
He and others pointed to something they consider a key aspect of the plan: By finding an environmentally positive use for uncontaminated dredge material, less of it will eat up areas designed to take dirty material, such as Hart-Miller Island off eastern Baltimore County.
Hart-Miller is filling up -- Army corps estimates are that it will be filled to capacity by 1998.
Although the Poplar Island plan would solve a thorny problem at the port -- where to deposit the dredged material -- the idea originally came from environmental advocates.
"This wasn't originally proposed by the port," said Mr. Gill. "We went to the port and proposed Poplar Island as an alternative to 'overboard disposal.' "