WASHINGTON – Maryland Sens. Paul Sarbanes and Barbara Mikulski are asking President Clinton to support additional funds for a project to rebuild a rapidly eroding Chesapeake Bay island.
In a Feb. 13 letter to Clinton, the Democratic senators called the Poplar Island project “a win-win situation” that would achieve environmental and economic goals.
Located off the coast of Talbot County, Poplar Island was once a land mass of more than 1,000 acres that supported a farming community. But all that remains are a few islets of less than 14 acres.
The Democratic senators are supporting a reconstruction plan that would use material dredged from the Baltimore harbor shipping channels to return the island to roughly its original size. But they said they need more money to get construction of the project going this year.
In 1995, Congress approved about $3 million for the project, the senators wrote.
But the first phase of the project alone – to build dikes to contain the dredged material – will cost about $63 million, Sarbanes and Mikulski said.
Their letter asks the president to submit a request in his March budget for $22 million for the project.
It also asks him to endorse legislation to raise the maximum annual amount spent on beneficial use projects such as this from $15 to $30 million. And it asks him to submit a request to use about $10 million in funds left over from other 1996 Corps of Engineers programs for Poplar Island.
It may take a while to receive the funds, said Sarbanes spokesman Bill Toohey.
“Action on that budget request has been delayed because of the current budget impasse,” he said.
A White House spokesman could not be reached Tuesday.
The letter mentions a just completed year-long study conducted by the corps that identifies the project as both cost- effective and environmentally useful.
“This whole concept is strongly supported by both the economic interests who want the port to function and the environmental interests who want to rebuild the island,” Sarbanes said. “Traditionally, these groups have been at odds and this is the kind of solution that everyone can join in supporting.”
Constant dredging is necessary to keep the harbor’s channels open and the state is running out of disposal sites, said Charlie Stek, Sarbanes’ projects director.
Each year, the state has to dredge 4 million cubic yards of material from the Chesapeake Bay channels, Stek said. The lack of viable sites for dumping the sediment was reaching a “crisis point,” he said.
A cheap alternative is open-water dumping. But this is frowned upon as environmentally unsound, Stek said.
Sarbanes said that despite higher costs of moving the dredged material to the island, the project will have more long- term positive effects.
“Obviously it will cost you some additional money to do it this way, but you will get far greater benefits,” he said.
According to Stek, Poplar Island is one of “very few unpopulated islands left in the area.”
An effort in 1993 to create a “barrier reef” to halt the erosion process was unsuccessful. About 10 barges were sunk near the island.
If restored through dredging, the island should support many bird species including bald eagles, egrets, osprey and black duck. Restored grasses and marshlands would also provide natural habitats for a wide variety of fish and other forms of aquatic life.
The project is the largest of its kind and could serve as a national model for other port states to emulate, Stek said.
“This project is unique in its scope and what we hope to accomplish by it,” he said. “In many senses we’re exploring the kinds of activities the corps can engage in for wetlands restoration.” -30-