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Dredging to save Poplar Island restores wildlife habitat from effects of climate change

Posted on May 4, 2022

Poplar Island is a massive project that has taken not only decades of resources, but manpower, too. Ultimately, it will become an open habitat for wildlife to thrive.

The container ship Ever Forward that was stuck in the Chesapeake Bay for more than a month will not soon be forgotten. One good thing that came from it was material dredged up to try to free the ship is helping an island that was once on the verge of vanishing.

Construction of Maryland’s Poplar Island was officially completed last year, but that’s not the end of it. Dredge material was brought and placed in this part of the mid-Chesapeake Bay for more than 20 years.

At one point the island whittled down to just 5 acres from erosion and sea-level rise. Now, it has been brought back to life to more than 1,700 acres.

Once a campsite for War of 1812 British warships and even a presidential retreat, the island now serves as home to wildlife, including 250 species of birds.

“We have birds. We have mammals. We have fish, invertebrates. It’s an entire ecosystem here on Poplar Island,” said Seth Keller, a biologist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The habitats are designed with intent, each built for specific animals that biologists research.

“The marsh is extremely tricky to design and construct. There’s not a lot of species of plants that are capable of dealing with this marsh situation. It’s tidal, it’s saltwater and it’s really just hard for them to live,” Keller said.

There are contingency plans to slow the effects of climate change. Unloading machines placed nearby pumped the dredge material through hydraulic pipes. The method completed what’s called “dyke construction” on the island early last year.

“What that means is that we have the footprint completed, but it still needs to be filled in with dredged material. So, we’re expecting to see dredge material for the next 10 years and even beyond that. There will continue to be another decade or so of habitat development,” said Katie Perkins, a project manager with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

But restoration has helped more than just the environment. Dredging has helped expand Maryland’s waterways, clearing the path for large ships headed to the Port of Baltimore.

“All of the federal channels that lead into the Port of Baltimore need to be dredged,” said William Doyle, executive director of the Maryland Port Administration “It’s a value to the taxpayer that we can use both for commercial, jobs and environmental coastal restoration.”

“It’s considered a win-win,” said Kristina Motley, a senior environmental specialist. “It’s one of those things where it’s not just an ecological success story, but it’s also an economical success story.”

The team on Poplar Island said decades of resources and passion contributed to bringing an island nearly wasted away back to life.

“There’s a lot of pride in what we do here. It’s a huge collaborative effort of a lot of different organizations coming together to create something that is so beneficial that we can see being a benefit to the environment. This wouldn’t have been possible 20-plus years ago before construction began,” Motley said.

The island is for wildlife, but visitors can set up a free tour to see the growing island until the end of October.


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