Poplar Island rises again

ON THE BAY

Restoration: A huge state-federal project uses silt dredged from Baltimore's ship channels to fight erosion and re-establish wildlife habitats.

September 10, 2004|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

FORGET THAT waterfront with million-dollar views. It's for pikers. Let's talk about the bay's new third-of-a-billion-dollar view.

It's from Poplar Island, rebuilt over the past few years at a cost of about $327,000 per acre. The good news is that we taxpayers already own it, and tours are available to groups of eight or more (see below for details).

I recently made the one-hour paddle in my kayak from the Talbot County mainland to check on the resurrection of Poplar Island, where the needs of commerce and wildlife are happily intersecting as they seldom do.

A huge federal-state project to rebuild the eroded island with silt dredged from Baltimore's ship channels has created the only place in Maryland's mid-Chesapeake where one can enjoy 20 feet of elevation.

The view on a clear day extends well above the Bay Bridge, which is 12 miles north, and south almost 15 miles to Calvert Cliffs.

Chesapeake Beach on the Western Shore appears close enough that you can almost count windows in buildings. Tilghman Island is just five miles to the east.

Several decades from now, when the forests to be planted on its several hundred acres of uplands have reached mature heights of 60 to 80 feet, Poplar will be one of the bay's more prominent landmarks.

The island is billed by the Army Corps of Engineers and the Maryland Environmental Service (MES) as the largest use ever of dredged material to create wildlife habitat.

If the whole 1,100 acres, encased in a stone dike, were filled to 20 feet, Baltimore's port could continue disposal there far beyond 2014, the projected life of the project.

But by agreement with environmental agencies and organizations, half of the new Poplar will be shaped into low-lying wetlands, sand hummocks, wildflower meadows and ponds to provide habitat for everything from sandpipers and plovers to terrapins and horseshoe crabs.

Indeed, an extraordinary array of wildlife has shown up even as the earth-movers and heavy dump trucks still rumble around on the dikes, and as wetlands are being planted.

On the eastern side, a long sand beach has formed naturally outside the dike. A few summers ago, female diamondback terrapins began flooding the beach to lay their eggs. Researchers have documented 181 nests there this summer.

"Build it and they will come" seems to be the message, says Lincoln Tracy, the MES official managing the project.

"It's so obvious that you have all these species looking desperately for places where there's no human competition. ... It's like you're building an apartment complex and tenants are crowding into the lobby before you're even finished," he says.

What's really fascinating is that Poplar might be the template for a series of such places -- repealing the accepted future of bay landscapes.

"We are living now in probably the last of times for appreciating bay islands," I wrote in my first book, published in 1987. I was referring to sea-level rise, now at a foot a century or more, and the wave erosion that has gnawed about 10,500 acres from mid-Chesapeake islands alone in the last century and a half.

By those projections, the bay's low-lying islands would be gone in a couple of generations.

At the time I wrote, the Maryland Port Administration was still able to discharge dredged material "overboard," in deep trenches in the bay floor.

Such cheap options are now outlawed for environmental reasons. Just as Tracy describes wildlife as "desperately" seeking undisturbed habitat, so is Baltimore's port desperately seeking new disposal options.

To keep large ships moving, they must dredge 4 million cubic yards a year -- and that's just maintenance, not including new deepening and widening projects.

Poplar Island is designed to hold about 32 million cubic yards, and will close in 2014. Beyond that, the port has no confirmed options.

So, with the Army Corps, the port is considering an expansion of Poplar, and also similar projects on eroding islands farther south -- James Island in the mouth of the Choptank River and Barren Island, lying just west of Hooper Island.

Beyond that, there's Hooper itself, Bloodsworth, Holland, Smith, Tangier, Watts -- all eroding, all with potential for rebuilding.

Not all are likely to prove as good and noncontroversial candidates as Poplar. And the costs of disposal rise drastically -- by about 10 cents a cubic yard with every mile away from Baltimore.

A citizens group has also raised good questions about the need to keep dredging some of the harbor approach channels as deeply, given declining ship traffic through the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal.

But for the foreseeable future the disposal needs appear inevitable and huge, and more restored islands appear as good as any way to accommodate them.

One can envision a string of such projects, shaped to meet both wildlife's needs and human recreational demands (the bay is mighty short on public access shorelines).

Perhaps these once and future islands might form the core of a Chesapeake Bay National Park.

For Poplar Island tour information, contact Chrissy Albanese at chrissyalbanese@ earthlink.net.

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