Aiding nature's comeback

Project: The restoration of nearly extinct Poplar Island, using material dredged from port of Baltimore channels, pleases environmentalists and government officials.

May 20, 2001|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

POPLAR ISLAND - Two miles out in the bay, 34 miles southeast of Baltimore near Tilghman Island, excavators and dump trucks with tires as tall as a person are sculpting a mountain of muck and sand dredged from the port of Baltimore's shipping channels.

If the complex engineering proves correct - if the Maryland Port Administration, the Army Corps of Engineers and federal and state environmental agencies can carry through with a plan to mimic the natural world - this nearly extinct island will emerge over the next decade as an 1,100- acre wildlife preserve.

State officials hope the Poplar Island restoration will be a prototype for handling the perpetual problem of disposing of millions of tons of silt that must be dredged periodically to keep Chesapeake Bay shipping lanes open. Environmental disputes have beset the state's efforts to keep Baltimore's port competitive.

Three years after work began on the $427 million effort, it's hard to find critics of a project that is said to be the largest of its type ever undertaken. In bureaucratic parlance, it is called a "beneficial use" of dredge material that previously was viewed as a waste product.

For environmentalists and federal and state officials, reconstructing the island would mark the first reversal of the relentless losses of the bay's islands.

During the past 150 years, wind and water have claimed more than 10,000 acres of island habitat baywide. Poplar Island, chewed up by storms and rising sea level, shrank from 1,200 acres in 1847 to five scattered remnants totaling less than 85 acres in 1999.

"I'm not sure people can appreciate just how excited we all are about something of this magnitude," says Scott R. Johnson, the corps' project manager. "Creating habitat on this scale just hasn't been done; that's why it's looked at as a model. We're hearing from people all over the country."

To stop erosion, a year ago contractors completed a 20-foot-high dike, a ring of rock and sand topped with rye and wildflowers, which holds back the bay's waters as dredged sand and mud are pumped into areas behind the dike.

Six to 10 barges a day make the 30-mile trip from the Brewerton channel off Kent County, hauling 20,000 to 40,000 cubic yards of dredged material, installments that eventually will total 33 million cubic yards.

The dark, wet glop is pumped through a two-mile-long pipe, spewing into areas that eventually will form large tracts of wetlands and of hardwood and pine forests that are expected to grow on the island's restored uplands.

"It was quite a sight the other day, at sunrise in the fog as I was coming across the Bay Bridge," says Richard Bailey, project manager for Maryland Environmental Service, which is overseeing the project. "I could see one barge coming down the bay loaded, another going back north for more dredge material."

When completed, the island could provide nesting and nursery areas for everything from bald eagles to ospreys, herons and egrets. Small, low islands, which offer habitat for seabirds such as terns, will be built in the marsh. The wooded upland area will provide habitat for foxes, squirrels, deer and other mammals.

Port officials, stunned last year when environmentalists were able to halt plans for dumping dredged material in open waters near the Bay Bridge, are pushing hard for other "beneficial use" projects to open up more sites to receive dredge material.

By not leaving materials in the open-bay dumping area known as "Site 104," port officials say, re-creating Poplar Island will take nine to 14 years to complete, down from their original estimate of 20 years, because dredged material that would have been dumped elsewhere will be used in the project.

A task force is evaluating two dozen potential locations for restoration efforts on islands or shorelines with significant erosion.

Though generally supportive of the Poplar Island project, Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, a frequent critic of the Port Administration and the corps, worries about the cost of such restoration work and whether it might cause other, unforeseen changes in the bay that might harm fish and wildlife.

"We could buy up Delmarva with what we're spending on Poplar Island," says Gilchrest, a Republican whose district spans the bay. Yard for yard, the Poplar project is up to five times as expensive as dumping dredged material in the open bay, which was blocked by environmentalists.

On Poplar, work has begun on the engineering required to duplicate the intricate balance of a tidal marsh. A 30-acre demonstration site on the island's east side will give engineers and naturalists time to experiment, testing breaks in the dike that will allow tides to flow to and from guts, or rivulets, which stretch as much as a quarter-mile inland.

"Getting the elevation right is really the key," says Jenn Aiosa, a staff scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which backs the project. "A couple inches too high, and you don't have a wetland."

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