Photos document demise of Dorchester's James Island

By Jeremy Cox, The Bay Journal
Posted 11/26/22

When first settled by the English in the 1660s, James Island is believed to have boasted about 1,350 acres of dry land off Maryland’s Eastern Shore, where the Little Choptank River spills into …

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Photos document demise of Dorchester's James Island

Posted

When first settled by the English in the 1660s, James Island is believed to have boasted about 1,350 acres of dry land off Maryland’s Eastern Shore, where the Little Choptank River spills into the Bay.

Today, not much remains of the archipelago except a few clumps of mud. Rotting stumps and a fallen trunk or two are all that remain of the thick stands of trees that once graced the terrain. A few lie visible beneath the water.

Images compiled between 1999 and October this year present a dramatic depiction of the shrinking island, a victim of erosion and a changing climate. Over the past 100 years, they have driven sea level up by about a foot in the Chesapeake region, and it’s on track to swell another 4 feet by the end of this century, climate scientists say.

James Island offers a preview of the wet future that awaits many low-lying places around the Bay, said Michael Scott, a geography professor at Salisbury University who studies erosion rates across the Eastern Shore. The extra water supercharges the erosion of the island’s outer edges and hastens its demise, he said.

Scott estimates that the north end of James Island, which experiences erosional forces from both the Little Choptank and the Bay, ceded land at a pace of 15 inches per year between 1994 and 2016. That amounted to 29 feet of land lost to the water during that span.

“That is an astonishing rate of land loss,” Scott said.

The last residents of James Island left long ago. But its demise could still impact people elsewhere, Scott said.

The island acts as a barrier for communities on the mainland, including Madison, Church Creek and many farms and homes in northeast Dorchester County. When the last spit of land finally slips underwater, those places will no longer benefit from its protection, he explained.

Water has eaten away so much of James Island that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has stopped tracking its size.

“It looks pretty darn dismal,” said Trevor Cyran, a project manager for the agency’s Baltimore office.

Help is on the way, though. As part of the Corps’ $4 billion Mid-Chesapeake Bay Island Ecosystem Restoration, muck dredged from the shipping channels leading to the Port of Baltimore and the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal will be used to rebuild the island adjacent to the fragment that is currently above water.

It will be much like the restoration of Poplar Island to the north — only bigger. Poplar’s final proportions are expected to stretch across about 1,700 acres by its 2032 completion; James is forecast to expand more than 2,000 acres by the project’s conclusion in 2067.

Unlike Poplar, where some light recreational activities will be allowed, James will be reserved for nature, Cyran said.

The Army Corps received $80 million from Congress’ infrastructure law to complete the design and preconstruction activities for the project. In October, the agency announced it had awarded a $43 million construction contract to Coastal Design & Construction of Gloucester, Va. Officials plan to start work by expanding Barren Island, 12 miles south by 72 acres.

James Island will have to wait until 2030 for the rebuilding to begin.

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