The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Baltimore District, completed construction of the Poplar Island Ecosystem Restoration Project lateral expansion Jan. 20, 2021, providing 575 additional acres, including four new wetland cells and one large upland cell. The project is now able to accept dredged material associated with the approach channels to the Port of Baltimore until around 2032.
"This is a momentous day that has been many years in the making," said Baltimore District's Poplar Island project manager Trevor Cyran. "This could not be possible without our dedicated staff, partners, and contractors, who put the time in to make this a reality – a great example of what mission complete looks like."
Background on Poplar Island
Courtesy of poplarislandrestoration.com
In 1847, Poplar Island boasted more than 1100 acres. During the early 1900s, the island supported a thriving community of about 100 residents, several farms, a school, a church, a post office, and a sawmill. By the 1920s, residents began leaving the island as more and more of its landmass fell victim to erosion. The island’s remains were still used as a retreat in the 1930s and 1940s, and Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman were among its visitors. By the early 1990s, all that remained of the original island were several small clusters of islets rising just above the surface of the water. Reduced to about four acres, Poplar Island’s disappearance seemed imminent.
In 1994 an interagency team from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), Maryland Department of Transportation Maryland Port Administration (MDOT MPA), and many other federal and state environmental agencies decided that restoring remote island habitat lost in the Chesapeake Bay was of great environmental value, and signed a Chesapeake Bay Ecosystem Management agreement committing to the beneficial use of dredged material to restore island habitat.
Through the Environmental Impact Statement process, the project’s partners began soliciting input from local communities, businesses, and environmental groups for suggestions on how to accomplish this effort. They decided to explore the possibility of using dredged material from the navigational channels leading to the Port of Baltimore to rebuild the island to its approximate 1847 footprint.
In 2007, Congress authorized an expansion of the project’s footprint to allow for more dredged material placement capacity and ecosystem restoration benefits.
It's been 23 years since Poplar Island's first containment cell was completed, and in 2017 construction of the expansion began. Since then, teams have worked diligently and efficiently on the expansion through the on-going Covid-19 pandemic, following CDC guidelines, and completing the work ahead of schedule.
This expansion adds a storage capacity of 28 million cubic yards, equivalent to approximately 54 Baltimore Trade Centers.
"I am very proud of my Baltimore District team, our government partners, including the Maryland Port Administration, and our industry partners who performed the construction. The completion of the Poplar Island construction marks a significant milestone for the Army Corps. It is truly a win-win when we can make good use of the dredged material removed from our navigation channels. Many people worked hard on Poplar Island over the years, and this project serves as a shining example of what is possible when our elected officials, government agencies and the public focus on a common goal," said Baltimore District Commander Col. John Litz. "We're proud of what we've built to maintain the health of the Chesapeake Bay watershed while keeping our navigation channels safe and driving the regional and national economies."
USACE works in partnership with the Maryland Department of Transportation Maryland Port Administration, and other federal and state agencies on this project.
"I want to thank Col. Litz and the Baltimore District for their incredible partnership on all of our dredging projects," said MDOT Maryland Port Administration executive director William P. Doyle. "Poplar Island is an internationally-recognized environmental success story that will continue receiving dredged sediment for at least the next ten years. We're pleased to be moving forward on the preconstruction engineering and design of the Mid-Chesapeake Bay Island Ecosystem Restoration project. Both projects are major reasons why the Port of Baltimore can receive the largest ships in the world. The sediment dredged from the Chesapeake Bay and other channels allows ultra-large, Neo-Panamax vessels to call on Baltimore. That sediment is not wasted, but instead, it is reused for island restoration and reclamation."
“Innovative engineering work has gone into developing wetlands on Poplar Island that has significantly contributed to the Chesapeake Bay's overall restoration goals,” explained Cyran. “These efforts have become a model for ecosystem restoration throughout the world.”
In fiscal 2021, Baltimore District received an additional $382,000 in funding to complete preconstruction engineering and design work to restore James and Barren islands, totaling more than 2000 acres, through the placement of dredged material.
This funding is through the 2021 Work Plan for the Army Civil Works Program, which is Congressionally-authorized funding specifically for the Corps in addition to funding outlined in the 2021 Administration's Budget. The Army Corps of Engineers, Headquarters, must annually submit a Work Plan to Congress after the appropriations bill is passed. Headquarters, working with the Office of Management and Budget, determines the allocation of these additional funds.
Once constructed, this project, known as the Mid-Chesapeake Bay Island Project, will replace Poplar Island as the primary site for the beneficial use of dredged material from the approach channels to the Port of Baltimore with the capacity to contain up to 95 million cubic yards of material over a span of at least 30 years.
This project represents a long-term strategy for providing viable placement alternatives that meet the Port of Baltimore's dredging needs while maximizing the use of dredged materials as a beneficial resource.