In 1847, Poplar Island boasted more than 1,100 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.
The Maryland General Assembly declared that the Chesapeake Bay and the tidewater portions of its tributaries are a great natural asset and resource to the State and its counties and therefore required that all material dredged must be placed within a confined area or beneficially reused.
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.
Following the necessary environmental studies, stakeholders, which included local government, business, conservation and civic groups, decided that rebuilding Poplar Island was not only viable, but the project would create more than 1,000 acres of remote island habitat — a valuable regional habitat being lost due to natural processes at an alarming rate.
It is estimated that in the mid-Chesapeake Bay region, over 10,500 acres of this unique habitat have been lost due to erosive forces in the last 150 years! Their decision is seen by most as a "win-win" solution.
The remnants of the original Poplar Island consisted of clusters of low, marshy knolls and tidal mudflats. Using these remnants, engineers first constructed more than 35,000 feet of containment dikes using sand, rock, and stone. Within the dikes, dredged material is pumped in and allowed to properly drain to maximize the island’s placement capacity. The sediment is then shaped in order to construct beneficial habitat features that serve as migratory resting and nesting spots to many of the Bay’s treasured waterfowl and shorebirds, as well as other regionally important wildlife. Shortly after the first dredged material was placed on the island in the spring of 2001, Ospreys, egrets, terns, herons, eagles, terrapins, and other wildlife began to call the newly restored island home. Additionally, as the wetlands mature, they serve as a natural filter to improve water quality while continuing to provide valuable habitat for birds, crabs, small fish, and shellfish. Extensive engineering work has gone into the wetland development and the effort contributes significantly to the restoration of the Chesapeake Bay.
The Poplar Island Project Team (USACE and MDOT MPA) is advised by the Poplar Island Working Group, which is composed of representatives of Federal, State, and local agencies, environmental groups, educational institutions, and commercial entities with an interest in the success of the project. Through regularly scheduled project updates from the management teams and reviews of key planning documents and reports, the Working Group provides recommendations to the Project Team on regulatory compliance, habitat development and management, and resource monitoring.
The original Poplar Island project was planned to be over 1,140 acres in size with half developed as wetlands and half developed as uplands habitat. However, due to the need for more dredged material placement capacity and the project’s numerous habitat successes, Congress authorized a project expansion in 2007. Construction began in 2016 and includes a lateral expansion of 575 acres to the north as well as the raising of the existing upland dikes. The existing upland dikes will be raised to an elevation of 25 feet and the expansion dikes will reach an elevation of 20 feet. The final project, including the expansion, will be designed to contain about 68 million cubic yards of material, resulting in a total of 1,715 acres of remote island habitat. The final project will consist of approximately 776 acres of tidal wetlands, including low marsh and high marsh habitat, bird nesting islands, and open water ponds, and an upland portion of approximately 829 acres.
The final expansion plan includes a new habitat feature for the site, a 110-acre open water embayment with a depth of up to 12 feet. The Bay bottom in this area will remain primarily undisturbed, limiting impacts to the benthic habitat. This semi-protected fisheries habitat will provide a vital trophic link between open water and restored wetlands, where wetlands will provide a food source and nursery habitat for larger fish species. Three breakwater structures will protect the embayment and provide additional habitat for fish as well as bird nesting habitat on the breakwaters’ sandy crests. Large rock reefs within the open water embayment will add further complexity.
Planning for the development of the upland portion of the project is underway. The first step is the formation of an Upland Habitat Workgroup (UHW). The UHW has already begun to consider the most desirable and achievable sub-habitats and what unique challenges their construction will bring to the project. The construction of upland habitat will attract a new variety of species to the project site. Sediment in the rain water will also be beneficial to the established marshes. It is believed that among other benefits, this sediment input will help the project’s resiliency in response to the region’s projected sea-level rise. An upland test plot to understand how to create these diverse habitats within dredged material is being planned for the coming years. Lessons learned from the experimental plot will be helpful when planning the over 800 acres of uplands still to be developed.