Demise of Smith Island is far from inevitable

If the government is willing to invest, a bay island and its residents can be saved

July 07, 2013|By Eddie Somers and Duke Marshall

Some believe it is inevitable that Smith Island will be lost to erosion and rising sea levels. We disagree. As members of Smith Island United, a group formed to preserve Smith Island, we believe the government has pretty much eliminated the word ""inevitable"" when it comes to the future of Chesapeake Bay islands.

Hart Miller and Poplar islands in the upper bay were basically ""created"" by the government from open bay waters. These are very big projects. Poplar Island, off Tilghman Island, started in 1998 with a 35,000 foot stone dike, which was then filled with dredged spoils and is currently over 1,000 acres of high land and marsh. The total investment in the island's creation is about $1 billion, 75 percent from the federal government and 25 percent from the state. The federal Fish and Wildlife Service promoted this project for the migratory birds and nesting turtles. James Island, another mid-shore disappearing island site, is also in the planning stage. It would be another thousand acres.

Based on the Hart Miller and Poplar island projects, there is obviously plenty of know-how available to protect Smith Island from erosion and to accommodate sea level rise well into the next century. The task could be accomplished at a small fraction of the cost of those huge projects, but we believe the rewards to Marylanders in preserving their unique historic island would be far greater. Unlike Poplar Island, Smith Island has people carrying on the watermen's work and ways that have been going on for centuries. Unlike Poplar Island, we think our island is the gem of the bay from an environmental point of view. Our creeks, bays, marshes and thousands of acres of submerged grasslands are a prime nursery for the crabs, oysters and fish we catch that are so important to Maryland's economy. That's what's at stake here.

The media coverage is creating the misconception that all of the island is eroding away — this is false. The village of Ewell is protected from erosion by a substantial jetty system on the west. Tylerton has bulkhead and rip rap protection. Most of our high land where our villages are located is not eroding at all. On the west side of the island, Rhodes Point is separated from the bay by a narrow barrier Island that is eroding away due to strong bay waves during storms. This is a problem. The Army Corps of Engineers has been aware of this problem for many years; they designed a jetty system and seawall, and the project was fully funded prior to the Iraq war. We need to get that project back on track.

We are beginning to discuss ways improve the island's economy, start new businesses to keep more of our children here and attract new families. We hope more Marylanders will visit Smith Island, see the museum, spend a few moments in one of our beautiful churches, have lunch at one of our restaurants, visit the famous Smith Island Cake Company, take a boat ride to Pelican Island, paddle a kayak on quiet protected waters, or try their luck fishing. Come on one of the four boats that carry people to the island and stay a while in one of our bed and breakfasts, inns or seasonal rental houses. Check out the Smith Island websites; visitsmithisland.com and smithisland.org.

Let's not rush to judgment on Smith Island, let's get the facts out and begin the planning process so Marylanders can enjoy Smith Island for many years to come.

Eddie Somers (esomers@verizon.net) and Duke Marshall are members of Smith Island United. Contributing to this article were fellow members Roland Bradshaw, John Cranston Tyler, Tom Lilly and John DelDuco.

 

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