As climate change floods U.S. coast, islands fight for public money

by David Sherfinski | @dsherfinski | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 12 April 2022 16:27 GMT

A water tower is seen past crab traps along the harbor in the Chesapeake Bay surrounding Tangier Island, Virginia, U.S., March 28, 2022. Al Drago/Thomson Reuters Foundation

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As Virginia's Chesapeake Bay islands disappear under rising seas, public money allocated for natural habitats in Maryland breeds frustration among Tangier Island residents

  • Chesapeake Bay islands threatened by rising seas

  • Funding differences across state borders create envy

  • Poplar Island seen as a model restoration project

By David Sherfinski

TANGIER ISLAND, Virginia, April 12 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - With rising global temperatures and seas set to drown scores of homes on the U.S. East Coast's historic Tangier Island, some residents are frustrated that hundreds of millions are being spent saving nearby islands inhabited solely by wildlife.

Public funding of a 1,700-acre restoration project on Poplar Island is a sore point on Tangier Island, about 70 miles (97 km) farther south, which is also slowly disappearing into the Chesapeake Bay, famed for its marine life.

"That I do envy - Poplar Island," waterman Allen Parks said as he wheeled his young son back and forth in a stroller on a dock on Virginia's Tangier Island. "Spending millions upon millions of dollars and nobody lives there."

"You got a community here full of history from when America was discovered," added Parks, alluding to the ancestry of many of Tangier's 400-odd residents who trace their roots back to European colonists who arrived in the 1700s.

The Poplar Island project is seen as a model for restoring wetland habitats, by building them up with sediment from channels near the Port of Baltimore, which has to be dredged regularly so that ships can pass through safely.

Competition for funding such restoration projects is pitting a growing number of U.S. jurisdictions against one another, as the fight intensifies for scarce resources to protect people and land from the devastating impacts of climate change.

Poplar Island is in Maryland, where officials are planning a similar project to build up 2,000 acres of largely wildlife habitat on James and Barren Islands - also in the Chesapeake Bay - using dredged material from shipping channels.

"The pie has to be vastly expanded - otherwise, you're going to have all these local perturbations," said Stephen Eisenman, director of strategy at the Anthropocene Alliance, a climate justice advocacy group.

"There's not enough money and they're always going to fight over what there is."

A local man arrives at the Post Office on Tangier Island, Virginia, U.S., March 28, 2022. Al Drago/Thomson Reuters Foundation.

REMOTE LOCATION

Tangier Island has benefited some from dredged material, which helped build up the land around its airport and has shored up a northern spot, called Uppards, even though it was abandoned because of encroaching water about a century ago.

But protecting the island, by installing stone in vulnerable spots, using dredged sand to raise parts of the land, and making other infrastructure improvements, would cost $250 million to $300 million, a recent study found.

Tangier does not have the environmental or economic clout to win major federal or state funding, compared to other islands closer to the Port of Baltimore, one of the country's largest and busiest ports.

The port, about 40 miles northeast of Washington D.C., provides more than 15,000 direct jobs as well as taxes and business income, Maryland state government data shows.

Tangier has found it hard at times to get non-federal sponsors, typically needed to partner with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is backing other restoration projects in the bay.

"One of the challenges for Tangier is just the remote location of it," said Michelle Hamor, a senior policy official with the Army Corps of Engineers in Virginia.

U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat, in 2017 pushed for Tangier to be included in a pilot program for "beneficial use" of dredged material but the island was not selected.

An old radio lies in the sand along the shoreline at Uppards, a once-populated area on the north end of Tangier Island, Virginia, U.S., March 28, 2022. Al Drago/Thomson Reuters Foundation

Doug Myers, Maryland senior scientist at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, a non-profit founded in 1967 to restore the bay, said islands with small communities can struggle to win federal dollars without a broader-based pitch for conservation.

Poplar Island, for instance, can draw on widespread support from birdwatchers and people concerned about the loss of coastal habitats. It is home to 250 bird species, including the endangered Common Tern, and is a hatching site for terrapins.

But "if you (say) 'let's save 200 people on Tangier by spending 10 times more than it costs to do Poplar Island,' you might get the people in Virginia and maybe Maryland to vote for that - but that's probably it," Myers said.

LIVING LABORATORY

The project to restore Poplar Island, which began in 1998, has been hailed as a national success story and has won substantial backing from local, state and federal officials, academic institutions and non-profit groups.

During the 1840s, Poplar Island was more than 1,100 acres in size. It was home to about 100 residents in the early 1900s before its population dwindled away with its land, which fell to about four acres by the early 1990s.

The island now totals more than 1,700 acres.

"There's been a concerted effort by the agencies, non-profits - even several different universities - to make it kind of a living laboratory," said Myers of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

For backers, it hasn't been a matter of "just build it and walk away", he said, emphasizing how groups involved with the project have learned about key aspects, like dredging and maintaining habitats, along the way.

Mayor James “Ooker” Eskridge drives a boat toward Uppards, a now-uninhabited spot on the north end of Tangier Island, Virginia, U.S., March 28, 2022. Al Drago/Thomson Reuters Foundation

Poplar's restoration is estimated to cost roughly $1.2 billion, according to the Army Corps of Engineers.

In contrast, it took years to win public funding for a recent stone jetty to reduce the risk of storm damage in Tangier Island's harbor, which cost about $3 million to build, according to Mayor James "Ooker" Eskridge.

There was likewise a years-long battle to win a protective wall on the west of the island, constructed in 1989 for about $10 million.

The battle over funding is just the latest chapter in long-standing rivalries between Chesapeake Bay islands.

"Way back, there used to be crab wars" where Virginia marine authorities fired on Marylanders who dared cross into their waters to go crabbing, said Eskridge.

“That wouldn't work today,” he said with a laugh as he cruised the waters northwest of Tangier.

“Which is good - I would hate to go out crabbing and get shot at. Crabbing can be difficult anyway."

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(Reporting by David Sherfinski. Editing by Katy Migiro and Laurie Goering. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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