For years, residents of this fast-shrinking island have been jealous of a project about 75 miles north in the Chesapeake Bay, up in Maryland waters, at a place called Poplar.Residents propose using dredge spoils to re-enlarge Tangier Island; authorities would rather see the island erode away so they can call the islanders refugees from climate change. I did wonder about the feasibility of rebuilding the island while the residents were present. Then I remembered how it worked for Manhattan.
A century and a half ago, Poplar was an island of more than a thousand acres, bigger than Tangier is now. But by the early 1990s, it was almost gone. And then, miraculously, it wasn’t.
What happened was a project that federal officials estimate will have cost about $1.4 billion by the time it’s finished in the early 2040s.
Poplar coming back in a big way is “for the birds,” some Tangiermen say drolly. The Maryland island is being reconstituted as a 1,700-acre wildlife sanctuary, thanks to material from dredging the upper reaches of the shipping channel to Baltimore. The federal government and Maryland's port agency are sharing the cost.
All this while millions of cubic yards of muck dredged each decade from that same channel’s lower stretches, in the Virginia waters of the bay, are dumped in open-water disposal areas. In the Baltimore channel's Virginia portion, what's dredged up is put to no “beneficial use” – the term that Army Corps of Engineers officials use in describing the Poplar project.
Meanwhile, material from dredging channels in the Hampton Roads harbor goes to Craney Island in Portsmouth. Plans call, eventually, for building a new marine terminal there.
Why not find a beneficial use for the material from the Baltimore channel's Virginia portion as well? Why not, instead of just dumping it overboard, use it to save Tangier?
Town leaders on the Virginia island often wondered that among themselves but never pushed for a study. Nor did state and federal officials. Putting massive amounts of dredged material on an inhabited island – even one whose residents have been labeled as potential climate change refugees – seemed too far out of the box.
That is, until last summer, when Susan Conner, the planning and policy chief in the Army Corps’ Norfolk District, and John Bull, head of the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, seriously began questioning the old order.
Bull and other state officials already had been raising concerns that the dumping of dredged material is damaging the bay’s environment – particularly when it covers habitat for blue crabs, the Chesapeake’s most important fishery.
Crabs are Tangier’s economic lifeblood. Is there a way to turn a possible downside for the island into a gain?
The material could be used to create upland and wetland wildlife habitat that’s dramatically shrunk in Virginia waters over the past century as bay islands have disappeared. And, “you preserve an historic, truly historic, cultural jewel in Virginia,” Bull said recently. “There are very few places in this world like Tangier Island.”
If it pays, they will find a way to make it work. If it doesn't the residents will leave, and Tangier will finish eroding into the Bay.