WASHINGTON – State and federal officials are looking for another Chesapeake Bay island or two that they can rebuild by dumping tons of silt dredged from the bay’s shipping channels.
The Army Corps of Engineers will hold hearings in February to winnow down a list of roughly 100 sites from the Chesapeake Bay Bridge south to the state line, said Michele Bistany, the Corps’s study-team leader.
The hearings are the first step in a multiyear process of replacing the current dumping ground, Poplar Island, which is expected to reach capacity in about 10 years.
“In two to three months, I would imagine that we will have (selected) the island or a combination of islands,” Bistany said.
The sites under consideration include islands that have eroded to varying degrees. Some of them no longer even poke above water.
Scott Johnson, the Corps’ Poplar Island Restoration project manager, said the need to identify a new dumping site is “fairly urgent.”
“We’re trying to plan ahead so we don’t get in a bind later,” he said.
Johnson said about 4.5 million cubic yards of sand and mud must be dredged yearly from the bay to keep two shipping channels open.
“It’s like an underwater highway,” Johnson said. “We dredge channels so ships can come up to the Port of Baltimore.”
State officials said the port is directly responsible for 18,000 jobs and that it generates millions in state, county and municipal taxes.
A report last month by executives from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Maryland departments of Transportation, Environment, and Natural Resources identified Baron and James islands as two of the best possible sites from an environmental standpoint.
Corps officials said they would consider, but not be limited by, the state’s recommendations.
State officials said these islands could reduce erosion of the shoreline and protect the homes of fish, oysters and crabs from sediment. Bistany said any bay island — new or rebuilt — acts as a barrier that protects the shoreline from waves.
“Anything behind that island will be protected from direct attacks from waves and wind. That (barrier) can actually stop your shoreline from eroding,” she said.
At the same time, these islands serve as a habitat for plants, birds and animals.
Although work continues on Poplar Island, Bistany said diamondback terrapins and eagles already have nested there in the last year, as well as over 200 other species of birds.
Even as it is looking to replace Poplar Island, the Corps is considering increasing its capacity for sand and mud dredged from the bay.
“We were opposed to a major expansion, something that would double it in size, but a smaller expansion would be appropriate to look at,” said Theresa Pierno, Maryland executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
The Corps also is working on a plan to replace Hart-Miller Island, which is nearing capacity. Unlike Poplar Island, which receives “clean” dredge from the bay’s shipping channel, material sent to Hart-Miller Island come from the Baltimore harbor and is deemed contaminated.
Any replacement for Poplar Island would receive clean dredge spoils, Corps officials said.