Since the 1970s, more than 230 feet of Deal Island’s shoreline has eroded, said Nicole Carlozo, a natural resources planner for the Maryland Natural Resources Department.
A University of Maryland researcher is among those trying to save the Chesapeake Bay island, which had a population of less than 500 people as of the 2010 Census.
The island — a short drive from the University of Maryland Eastern Shore — has also seen its dunes, once eight feet tall, disappear almost entirely, said Ariana Sutton-Grier, a professor at this university’s Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center.
“There’s pictures from a couple decades ago,” she said. “This site used to have sizable dunes, and then some maritime forests behind those dunes. I was shocked when I saw them, because today, there’s no hint of dunes. You see some dead trees, so no more maritime forests.”
Sutton-Grier said Deal Island has also been plagued by nuisance flooding — standing water in flat areas when there hasn’t been recent rain.
Sutton-Grier is part of a team, which also includes researchers from George Mason University and the Natural Resources Department, that's surveyed the problems on Deal Island, and is trying to protect it.
A combination of factors — including rising sea levels, ongoing erosion and storm surges — have caused Deal Island’s flooding, said Sutton-Grier, also the science director at the Nature Conservancy chapter for Maryland and DC.
In addition, rising saltwater levels along the island’s shorelines have killed off wetlands, which could’ve prevented damage from high energy storm waves, said Ali Rezaie, a doctoral candidate in civil engineering at George Mason University.
Rezaie and the GMU contingent of the project have focused on how natural infrastructure can protect the island from storm surges and rising waters. They’ve collected data on how wetland marshes protect land masses in parts of Virginia and have been analyzing the same conditions on Deal Island.
“From an engineering background, [wetlands] are a good first line of defense in areas where flooding is frequent and intense. In areas with low flooding or little wave energy, natural areas can provide more effective flood protection,” Rezaie said.
Wetlands can also be of economic benefit to their communities by reducing property damage incurred by flooding, Rezaie said.
“When expanded to multiple counties, or whole states, you see a large reduction in property damage due to flooding,” he said. “There’s a couple of studies we did in New Jersey, where we found out that for small areas, it creates economic stimuli in these areas that are preserving natural areas and coastlines.”
Following data collection by Sutton-Grier and GMU researchers, the Natural Resources Department hopes to begin active rebuilding of Deal Island’s lost dunes.
Carlozo said the project's goal is to prevent a full shoreline breach.
The department will be submitting a permit for construction of the dunes “any day now,” Carlozo said.
Once the dunes are built, the Department of Natural Resources will continue monitoring the island’s vegetation and elevation, among other things, to track the project’s effectiveness, Carlozo said. It will works alongside the Chesapeake Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve.
CORRECTION: Due to a reporting error, a previous version of this story incorrectly stated more than 270 feet of Deal Island’s shoreline has eroded since the 1970s. More than 230 feet has eroded. It also stated that the Department of Natural Resources was looking for a design contractor, but the project’s design has been completed and will soon be submitted for a permit. Lastly, a previous version of the story stated that Sutton-Grier and George Mason University scientists will monitor the water levels along Deal Island’s shore once the project is completed. This isn’t certain yet, but DNR will be monitoring the island’s elevation and vegetation.