Tangier Island is getting some state and federal help in its long-running battle against the Chesapeake Bay’s punishing waves. But officials said that it won’t be much help with a larger problem: sea level rise.Rising seas, land subsidence and erosion have claimed approximately two-thirds of the Tangier Island system’s land mass since 1850. (Dave Harp)

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Virginia Marine Resources Commission announced in late September an agreement to construct a nearly 500-foot-long stone jetty just off the island’s western shore.

The $2.6 million project is designed to keep the community’s navigational channel open and protect its commercial harbor from waves and future storm surges, said Virginia Secretary of Natural Resources Matthew Strickler.

“They’ve got some significant challenges with their harbor from a safety perspective, and there’s some shoaling with sediment getting in,” he said. “It’s not protected from some of the winds, so the jetty will be a buffer for that and improve access.”

The agreement paves the way for design work and construction to begin later this year and be completed in 2019, officials said. The federal government is shouldering 80 percent of the cost; the state is picking up the rest.

Tangier Island’s economy is closely tied to the water. Its shores are lined with docks, deadrise work boats and “shedding houses,” shacks used for processing soft crabs.

“A clear and open navigation channel is key for public safety and for the local economy, which counts the Chesapeake Bay and tourism among its central assets,” Gov. Ralph Northam said in a statement.

The project dates to 1994, when Congress authorized the Army Corps to study the potential for a jetty. A lack of funding and the need for further studies led to repeated delays.

In the meantime, the low-lying island has more recently played a role in the national debate over climate change. Tangier’s 400 residents live along three ridges on an island measuring 5 miles long and 1.5 miles wide with no access to the mainland except by boat or air.

Rising seas, land subsidence and erosion have claimed approximately two-thirds of the island system’s land mass since 1850, according to a 2015 Army Corps study.

Many of Tangier’s residents — with roots going back multiple generations on the island — are deeply skeptical of climate change science and blame erosion for its shrinking size. After a CNN report about the island last year, President Donald Trump, who has often called climate change a “hoax,” phoned the town’s mayor, James “Ooker” Eskridge, and told him he had nothing to worry about.

The jetty is set to start at the southwestern tip of Uppards Island, a formerly inhabited island just north of Tangier, and extend south into the navigational channel, officials said. Although it will protect the channel, the barrier isn’t expected to provide any relief to the land from sea level rise, Strickler said.

The sea is rising in the Bay at a rate of three-quarters of a foot every 50 years and accelerating, according to the 2015 Army Corps study. It predicted that Goose Island, one of Tangier’s three main islands, will be underwater by 2050, and all will become inundated by 2106.

The jetty project, though, “gives our island and residents, young and old, renewed hope that we can save our homes and our way of life,” Eskridge said in a statement. “This is the way that good government should work. This is a great example of true partnership between state and federal governments.”