By Stacy A. Ouellette and Devon SuitsSeptember 20, 2017
POPLAR ISLAND, Md. -- The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Baltimore District is leading an interagency project to help restore the ecosystem at Poplar Island in the Chesapeake Bay. The Paul S. Sarbanes Ecosystem Restoration Project at Poplar Island is a $1.4-billion sustainability project to provide habitat for diamondback terrapins, over 160 bird species, crabs, rockfish and killifish, all native to the area.
Poplar Island, located about 34 miles southeast of Baltimore in Chesapeake Bay, had eroded from more than 1,100 acres in the mid 1800s to a mere four, until the Corps of Engineers, in partnership with the Maryland Port Administration, began restoring the island two decades ago to its original footprint, using silt dredged from the Baltimore shipping channels.
In order to continue to provide more critical habitat in the mid-Chesapeake and further dredge placement capacity for the bustling Port of Baltimore, the Corps was authorized in 2014 to expand Poplar Island by an additional 575 acres.
Poplar Island is not the typical Corps project and has generated attention for its positive reuse of materials dredged from channels approaching the Port of Baltimore.
"Maintaining the shipping lanes in Baltimore Harbor and its bay channels is of critical importance to both the regional and national economy," said Baltimore District Commander Col. Ed Chamberlayne.
The port handles more than 30 million tons of commerce per year, contributing $1.9 billion to the local economy. "Whether it's vehicles, raw materials or other commodities, residents throughout the region and beyond benefit from the operations at the Port of Baltimore on a regular basis, and that's why we're committed to maintaining these channels," Chamberlayne explained.
A fundamental role of the Corps of Engineers it to provide safe, reliable and environmentally sustainable channels, harbors, and waterways nationwide. The Baltimore District maintains 290 miles of channels, dredging more than 2 million cubic yards of materials each year.
The material is mechanically dredged at the channel with clam shell buckets, then placed onto a barge, which is transported via tugboat to Poplar Island, said Justin Callahan, the Corps' project manager. The material is then hydraulically pumped into the island cells.
The work on the project and expansion is done in phases with the dredge placement broken down into island cells.
An island cell takes six to seven years to complete. Cell development phases include:
-- dredge material inflow, where the dredged silt is pumped into a working cell
-- crust management, where the silt dries and cracks, over a long period of time, as it is monitored by the Corps
-- channel excavation, where the dried crust can be cut to allow for water runoff, depending on the cell's design
-- marsh plain grading
-- tidal inlet construction, depending on whether plans for the specific cell call for an inlet,
-- and finally planting.
The expansion will eventually take the island to 1,715 acres.
"The project is very different than what the Corps has done in the past with dredge material disposal," Callahan said. "We are creating an island that hasn't been this size since the 1840s and restoring a remote island habitat that is critical to migratory birds, fish and other wildlife."
The project also benefits the Port of Baltimore because dredging can't be done without a disposal site, Callahan said.
"Although you have short-term benefits of having a place to put dredge material, it's really the ecosystem services that you're restoring in the bay," he said. "Those are the benefits that could go on forever."
The project is considered a win-win for all partner agencies involved, local communities, and those hoping to maintain native Chesapeake Bay species.
"The Corps created a type of habitat that was vanishing rapidly in the area," Callahan said.
"It's a fantastic project and we have a significant volume of lessons learned with others coming here from around the world to learn how to replicate it."
The dredge material is the foundation and wetland cells developed into marsh and tidal inlets are the surface level that visitors see. The restored habitat at Poplar Island creates the opportunity for the public to learn about the beneficial uses of dredged material, erosion control, water quality, wetlands habitat and species diversity.
Five different habitat types are being created at Poplar Island. Not only will these habitats support a diverse assemblage of plants and animals, but some of the habitat types to be created include ones that experts believe are most sorely needed in the bay.
"There is a plethora of species of birds that utilize all these islands as a stopping place on their way down south," said Seth Keller, Corps biologist. "Over 200 species of bird with an average of 15,000 birds a day pass through the Atlantic flyway."
Poplar Island also has a huge bee population with 14 different species of bees, Keller said, adding that the upland area will help increase that population.
The Corps cost shares the project with the Maryland Port Authority. Other federal and state agencies including the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, Maryland Environmental Service, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service contribute services to the project.
The majority of construction done on the project has been through Corps construction contracts while the design has been done by the Baltimore District, said Callahan. Currently the expansion portion of the project is ongoing through Corps contracted work. Poplar Island is scheduled for completion in 2044.