There has been a lot of discussion (some informed) in recent months about the ways to accommodate the disposal of material dredged from the Chesapeake Bay.

The proposed overboard placement (dumping) of 18 million cubic yards (mcy) of dredged spoils off Kent Island at a location called Site 104 caused enormous outcry. Early in the year, newspapers were filled with letters to the editor, legislators were besieged, public meetings were jammed with outraged and alarmed citizens — and the commissioners of several counties (Queen Anne’s, Kent, Talbot and Anne Arundel) went on record as opposing the proposal put forth by the Maryland Port Administration and the Baltimore District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

In response, bills were introduced in both the Maryland State Senate and the House of Delegates which would have prohibited the use of the Kent Island Deep for dredge spoil disposal.

Other bills touted “beneficial use” or the placement at Aberdeen Proving Grounds. None of these bills came “out of committee” for discussion or debate by the entire General Assembly — presumably because of opposition by the Glendening administration and the port authority, part of the Maryland Department of Transportation.

In May, the final portions of the “Draft Environmental Impact Statement” for the proposed dredged material disposal were issued by the Corps and the formal agency and public comment period began. Citizens, environmental groups, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the EPA (Region III) raised significant concerns. Consequently, in late July, the Corps withdrew the DEIS for revisions and scheduled its reissue for December.

Unfortunately, none of this furor addresses the even more significant, basic, underlying question: What is our state’s long-range plan (50–100 years) for managing navigational dredging in the Chesapeake Bay?

The MPA has what they call a “long-range” plan that has a time horizon of 20 years. The plan, The “State of Maryland’s Strategic Plan for Dredged Material Management,” calls for a mix of overboard disposal, upland placement and island construction (and reconstruction). But there is no vision with a 50–100 year time horizon of what to do with dredged material that would be consistent with a goal of long-term recovery and health of the Chesapeake Bay.

Currently, about 4.0–4.5 mcy of sediments must be dredged from the Bay each year to maintain the existing navigation channels servicing the Port of Baltimore from the south (Cape Henry) and the north (Chesapeake & Delaware Canal). About one-third of the sediments are removed from the main 50-foot southern channel; the other two-thirds of the sediments are dredged from the 35-foot northern approach channel. Most of these sediments enter the Bay via the Susquehanna River.

Looking forward, that quantity of suspended solids is expected to increase (significantly) when the pool behind the Conowingo Dam becomes full in about 2015–2017. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates are that the sediment load to the Bay will increase about 250 percent at that point in time. [A 30-year storm like Agnes could stir things up and really change the timetable. The January 1996 snow and rain event alone caused about 2 million tons to be flushed into the Upper Chesapeake Bay…about 50 percent more than the average yearly input from 1978 to 1993.]

Thus, to maintain both the southern and northern approaches to the port, the challenge is to find adequate sites to place 4.0 mcy (or more) every year. By 2009, Hart-Miller Island and the overboard disposal sites near Pooles Island will be full and closed, and by about 2020, Poplar Island will also be full.

What then are the options? Basically, there are only two with the long-term capacity to manage the unending quantities of dredged sediments: 1) Placement in the Deep Trough of the Chesapeake Bay, or 2) Placement in artificial islands somewhere in the Upper Bay. Beneficial use (recycling) — even if successfully developed — can only utilize about 0.5 mcy each year.

Such artificial islands would each be similar to Hart-Miller Island with an area of about 1,100 acres and a height of 35–45 feet about water level. Their individual capacity would be about 80 mcy and provide for 20 years of placement … if dredging rates did not increase. Thus, in the next 100 years, Maryland will need to construct at least five (and maybe as many as eight) of these islands. What that many major islands (surrounded by granite rip-rap) would do to the ecology and aesthetics of the Chesapeake Bay is a horrific, nauseating thought. Further, the cost would be truly enormous; each island is estimated to cost $500 million to $800 million to construct and complete.

The other long-term placement option, dumping into the Deep Trough would be only slightly better … because, at least, it would not be visible. But the placement of dredge spoils, or any other waste material, into the Deep Trough is currently prohibited by Maryland law — and has been opposed by the Glendening administration. Further, although anoxic in the summer, the deep paleo-canyon provides critical habitat in the winter for many species … including millions of blue crabs (one of the most commercially valuable Bay fisheries) and probably for the endangered shortnose sturgeon. Were the Deep Trough to be used for dredge spoil placement, it would be in the winter months — the most environmentally sensitive period. Clearly, the use of the Deep Trough for long-term (every year for 100 years) dredged sediment disposal is another horrific thought!

So, where does that leave us?

With the prospect of unending quantities of dredged sediments facing us, there really are only two options having significant capacity for dredge spoil placement… and neither of them are environmentally (or even economically) acceptable. What should we (Marylanders) do? What should we communicate to the decision-makers in Annapolis?

There is, however, a third alternative to contemplate. Consider that if you pick something up … and then find that you have no good place to put it down … maybe you shouldn’t have picked it up in the first place. Maybe, just maybe, we shouldn’t be dredging the Upper Bay — at lease not the the extent of 4 mcy each and every year!

Without question, not dredging all of the navigation channels to the Port of Baltimore would probably have an adverse impact on employment and the quality of life for many Marylanders … but how much? The answer is not known because, until now, the question hasn’t been seriously asked. Clearly, the consequences of dredging will have an enormous adverse impact on the quality of life in and around the Chesapeake Bay. Thus, the heretical questions … “Should we dredge?” … must be asked! Their time has come.

Which Way the Bay?

What do YOU think? (The prospects of not thinking are not acceptable.)