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In the Chesapeake Bay, an island is reborn one stone at a time

Posted on August 28, 2023

Cover photo: New barriers, called stone sills, rise from the Chesapeake Bay as part of the Barren Island restoration project in Dorchester County, MD. (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

It’s hard to imagine that Barren Island was once inhabited by more than a dozen farmsteads, a church, a schoolhouse and a handful of stores.

Now that the island has dissolved into a few dollops of land along the eastern edge of the Chesapeake Bay, it truly lives up to its name: Barren. The last residents fled to higher ground more than a century ago. Even the hunting lodge that was established in their wake has long since disappeared.

And yet, beginning last March, the remote archipelago has been a hive of construction equipment, barges and hard hats. Boulder by boulder, a new shield of defense is taking shape from one end of Barren Island to the other.

The project is about two decades in the making. It had been sidelined for years by a lack of funding from Congress. If the wait had gone on much longer, there might not have been much left to save, said Trevor Cyran, project manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“Climate change is a big driver of erosion here, which drives increased wave energy,” he said during an inspection of the work’s progress in mid-August. “This will establish and stabilize the island much better, as well as create additional acreage of wetlands.”

In the Chesapeake Bay, erosion and sea level rise have broken up Barren Island into chunks, some smaller than others.

Barren isn’t unique. (And it’s not the only island in the area getting the restoration treatment.) Across much of the Chesapeake Bay, sea level rise and the sinking of land caused by the retreat of glaciers during the past Ice Age have helped to drown thousands of acres of islands.

The phenomenon threatens to depopulate Maryland’s Smith Island and Virginia’s Tangier Island, the last of the Bay’s remaining inhabited islands with no bridge connecting them to the mainland.

Barren Island lies just west of Upper Hoopers Island in Dorchester County, MD. The only way on and off it is by boat – and even that is tricky because there are no docking facilities. Instead, there is acre upon eroding acre of marsh and pine woods.

The Army Corps estimates that Barren is shedding 3–4 feet of land per year to erosion. Over the past two decades, more than 40 acres of Barren’s land mass has been lost to the Bay, representing nearly one-fourth of its footprint.

The $43 million first phase of Barren’s restoration, now underway, includes the construction of about 2 miles of new or refurbished stone barriers, mostly along the island’s western flank. A 4,600-foot-long breakwater will also be raised to about 8 feet above the average water level, adding further protection.

The work is about 25% done, said Richard Gunn of Coastal Design and Construction, the project’s Gloucester, VA,-based contractor. Completion is expected by October 2024.

The next two phases would pipe in muck from the bottom of federal navigation channels in local rivers to create up to 83 acres of wetlands behind the new barrier walls. (Sources will include Slaughter Creek and the Honga River, Cyran said.) Engineers also plan to create two “bird islands,” totaling nearly 9 acres of new land, behind the extended barrier, just south of Barren.

Additional Congressional approval is needed to fund the final two phases, Cyran cautioned. The cost of all three phases is forecast to be around $200 million.

Trevor Cyran, project manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. explains plans for the restoration of Barren Island in the Chesapeake Bay.

One of the project’s main goals is to provide additional erosion protection to the fishing village of Hooper’s Island to its east, Cyran said. Another is to help replace rapidly vanishing wildlife habitat. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service owns most of the island as part of the Chesapeake Marshlands National Wildlife Refuge Complex.

“When this project is complete, it’s for the birds, the fish and the reptiles,” he added. “The intent is to give it back to nature.”

Barren Island, itself, is but the small, first step in a larger effort. Dubbed the Mid-Chesapeake Bay Island Ecosystem Restoration, the bulk of the $2 billion project is centered on rebuilding an island in the mouth of the Choptank River, about 13 miles north of Barren.

As measured by acres, the James Island restoration is 25 times the size of the new land footprint at Barren Island. Mud dredged from the approach channels leading to the Port of Baltimore and the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal will transform 2,100 acres of open water into dry land. (The construction will take place adjacent to – but not physically impact — the remnants of existing James Island, which is privately owned.)

The federal government is shouldering 65% of the mid-Bay project’s cost, with Maryland picking up the remaining 35%.

A long-reach excavator places chunks of granite along a stone sill being constructed in August 2023 to help restore Barren Island in the Chesapeake Bay.

The muck from those channels is currently offloaded at Poplar Island, about 15 miles north of James. Since the 1990s, the island off Talbot County has grown into the Army Corps’ largest dredged material “beneficial use” project undertaken on the East Coast.

But Poplar is expected to reach its 1,715-acre capacity around 2030, necessitating a move to James, said Amanda Peñafiel, project manager for the Maryland Port Administration.

“The Port Administration feels like this project is a win-win for the state of Maryland,” she said. “We are beneficially reusing dredge material to restore remote island habitat while keeping federal navigation channels clear, which ultimately keeps the port open for business.”



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