Maryland Island Restoration Wins ASCE’s Sustainability Innovation Award

October 2, 2015
An overhead view of the award-winning Poplar Island restoration project.

Poplar Island was not much of an island at all in the early 1990s.

Justin Callahan of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers visited the site in 1993 and described it as more like “tiny, little chunks” of remnant islands, little dots of rock amid the waters of the Chesapeake Bay along the Talbot County shore in Maryland. Some 22 years later, Poplar Island is truly an island again – more than 1,100 acres – thanks to the efforts of Callahan and the Corps, as well as the Maryland Port Administration.

ASCE has chosen to honor their work, naming the Paul S. Sarbanes Ecosystem Restoration Project at Poplar Island the winner of the 2015 Innovation in Sustainable Engineering Award. A formal presentation will be held during the ASCE 2015 Convention this month in New York City.

“This award is really about the partnership we have with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,” said Maryland Port Administration Executive Director James J. White. “Together we created a sustainable approach to keep the shipping channels safe and navigable while restoring the environment and providing opportunities to observe wildlife in its natural setting within the Chesapeake Bay.”

Essentially, the Poplar Island restoration solves two problems at once. The Port of Baltimore’s bay shipping channels had an excess of dredge material that needed to be disposed of somewhere. Meanwhile, erosion and tidal changes had eliminated thousands of acres of remote island habitat in the Chesapeake, including Poplar Island, a once prosperous fishing post that was almost entirely covered by water by the end of last century.

“These two things kind of came together. That’s the beauty of this project,” said Callahan, who served as project manager for the Corps. “The Corps and MPA found the perfect beneficial use of dredge material. We’re losing this valuable habitat; we need a place to put this dredge material. Voila – you have Poplar Island.”


The restored Poplar Island was constructed almost entirely from dredged material. Photo: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

ASCE’s Innovation in Sustainable Engineering Award was established in 1981 and updated in 2010 to focus on honoring engineering projects that implement and demonstrate creative applications of sustainability.

“It is especially exciting that this project, with its many associated benefits, not only creates habitat but also restores the environment to original form and function,” said Douglas J. Sereno, P.E., D.PE, ENV SP, Dipl, F.ASCE, chair of ASCE’s Committee on Sustainability. “The Army Corps and Maryland Port Administration have given us a wonderful case study demonstrating the advantages and benefits of sustainable development.”

The Poplar Island restoration took more than a decade to complete and was constructed almost completely from material dredged from the Port of Baltimore’s Bay shipping channels. It includes armored dikes, dredging, and dredged-material placement and grading.

“One of the things I most enjoy is seeing how people are awed by the spectacle of the project,” Callahan said. “Taking a visitor to one of the restored marshes, they’re challenged to understand, as I am too, how this could be a man-made ecosystem.”

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Already, nationally protected American black ducks, Maryland state-listed endangered common terns, and Maryland state-listed threatened least terns are nesting on the island. Photo: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

The wetlands and uplands provide remote-island terrain essential for the wildlife that calls the largest estuary in the United States – the Chesapeake Bay – home. Already, nationally protected American black ducks, Maryland state-listed endangered common terns, and Maryland state-listed threatened least terns are nesting on the island.

“I’m excited every time I go there,” Callahan said. “You can look at pictures of it, but until you approach the island by boat, get out and walk around and see the island, you can’t fully respect what’s been done there.”

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