Dredging up answer to vanishing islands

Plan would solve commerce, environment concerns

November 13, 2006|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,Sun reporter

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.

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