Poplar Island, in the mid-Chesapeake Bay, was on track to disappear by the turn of the 21st century. In the 1800s, Poplar Island boasted at least 1,100 acres, including fields, forests and marsh. Through the years, it played host to early colonial settlers, a small farming village, a hunting club and a presidential retreat for both Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman. But erosion and rising sea level took a devastating toll. By the 1990s, Poplar Island was a fragment of its former self, broken into four pieces that totaled less than ten acres. Herons, diamondback terrapins and other wildlife clung to the remnants in search of habitat, but the island continued to fall into the Bay at a rate of 13 feet per year.
Today, Poplar Island has a new story to tell. The island has regained life – and will provide more than a thousand acres of habitat – thanks to a landmark project led by the Maryland Port Administration and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and operated by Maryland Environmental Service.
The restoration of Poplar Island evolved from the need to maintain and improve shipping channels that lead to and from the Port of Baltimore. Sediment has entered and clogged shipping channels in the Chesapeake region since colonial times and deep, clear channels remain important as ships continue to increase in size. The process used to remove sediment from the channels is called dredging.
Dredging is a constant and challenging task. Today, partners at the Port of Baltimore dredge an average of 4.7 million cubic yards (mcy) of sediment from the harbor and Maryland waters of the Chesapeake Bay every year. Once removed, dredged material must be placed in a new location, away from the shipping channels. For many years, when environmental impacts were under-emphasized, dredged material was placed in the open waters of the bay. This changed in 1968 when the State asked experts to find better solutions, ones that would better protect the environment and might even offer some benefits.
The Paul S. Sarbanes Ecosystem Restoration Project at Poplar Island has become nationally known as one of the most dramatic and successful of these solutions – the “beneficial use” of dredged material to support environmental restoration.
The Return of an Island
Poplar Island, approximately 34 nautical miles southeast of Baltimore and one mile northwest of Tilghman Island in Talbot County, was first considered as a placement site in 1994. After many public meetings and environmental studies, construction began in 1998.
The aim was to use 40 mcy of uncontaminated dredged material to restore the island to 1,100 acres (its approximate size in 1847). Large dikes were built to contain the dredged material that would be placed around the remaining island fragments, as well as a breakwater to protect the site from future erosion. The first set of dikes, enclosing 640 acres, was complete by 2000. The second set, enclosing 500 acres, was finished in 2001. Dredged material first arrived at the island in 2001 and approximately two mcy continue to arrive each year. The material is placed incells within the diked area, where it slowly dries and consolidates. A carefully monitored de-watering process allows the excess water to drain from the cell into spillways and then return to the Bay.
The estimated cost for construction and operations through 2020 is $525 million. The project will likely be complete in 2041 at an estimated total cost of $1.2 billion. Seventy-five percent of the funds are provided by the federal government through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and 25 percent is provided by the State of Maryland.
Wetland and upland plantings began in 2002, aided by nonprofit organizations, volunteers and the Maryland Conservation Corps. Bay wildlife has made a vigorous response; eighty-nine species of birds have been observed at Poplar Island, including eagles, herons, pelicans, egrets and double-breasted cormorants. Diamondback terrapin nest on the shore, while otters, raccoons, beavers and deer roam the marsh and woody areas.
Eventually, 555 acres will be shaped into upland habitat and 555 acres will become intertidal wetlands. Of the wetlands, 80 percent will be low marsh and 20 percent high marsh. Small upland islands, ponds and channels will increase habitat options, along with areas of forest and shrubs.
A long-term framework was created to monitor environmental changes at Poplar Island for at least 20 years into the future. The process began with baseline monitoring to examine conditions before any site work began. Scientists conducted tests before and after the dikes were built and continue with rigorous monitoring of water quality, sediment quality, aquatic life and terrestrial life both on and around the island. No negative impacts have been identified, but more years of study are needed.
Studies are underway for expanding the Poplar Island project by as much as 575 additional acres. The expansion may be the most efficient and beneficial way to deal with a shortfall in placement sites, heightened by the closure of the Pooles Island placement site in 2010.
Poplar Island-Did You Know?
Poplar Island was first seen in 1573 by Spanish explorer Juan Menendez de Marques.
In 1608, European explorer Captain John Smith explored just north of Poplar Island, known today as Talbot County.
Named Popeley’s Island by William Claiborne in 1626, Poplar Island is one of the first areas of Talbot County to be named by its settlers.
Richard Thompson marked the first settlement on the island when he was granted the entire island in 1634 by his cousin, William Claiborne.
In 1968, four service men from Fort Meade were rescued from a mere 100-acre Poplar Island after their boat sank off-shore. Their only food source was a half-eaten goose and a can of beans.
Poplar Island Tours
Tours and educational programs at Poplar Island focus on the beneficial use of dredged material to form remote island habitat. Tours will cover erosion and sedimentation, habitat restoration, water quality monitoring, and species diversity. Participants will also learn about cultural history on the Chesapeake from the 1600's through today.
Tours are open to school groups, community organizations and individuals. With prior notification, tour themes and activities can be customized to your needs and interests.