(Delmarva Now) -- Tangier residents are known for being self-reliant and resilient, as people who live on a tiny island in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay need to be.
Still, protecting the island from disappearing under the waves — thereby protecting both its unique culture and a valuable ecosystem — will require resources beyond the community.
"I couldn't imagine living on the Shore without Tangier around. I think that's a real threat. We stand to lose that. I don't think the Eastern Shore is the same without Tangier," said Curt Smith, planning director at the Accomack-Northampton Planning District Commission, which assists Tangier among other Eastern Shore localities.
The island, a Republican stronghold, recently received national attention when President Donald Trump picked up the telephone and made a call to Tangier Mayor James "Ooker" Eskridge to thank him for his and the island's support. The community drew Trump's interest after a CNN story on the island's battle with erosion.
During the call, Trump reportedly told the mayor not to worry about sea-level rise.
"He said, 'Your island has been there for hundreds of years, and I believe your island will be there for hundreds more,'" Eskridge said.
It's how that survival scenario might come to pass — and the price tag — that's the stickler.
Before it's 'lost forever'
Tangier is about 3 miles long and is home to about 450 people, many of whom make their living catching fish, crabs and oysters as their ancestors have since the 1700s.
Island watermen account for a significant portion — 13 percent, the most of any bay town — of the state's $30 million a year blue crab fishery, according to a recent study.
Additionally, the island and surrounding sea grass beds, which act as a nursery for a wide variety of marine life, are a valuable ecosystem, scientists say.
The problem is, the island since 1850 has lost two-thirds of its landmass due to erosion from waves and sea-level rise, according to the authors of a 2015 study.
Without intervention, sea-level rise and land sinking in the region are expected to result in the loss of much of the remaining island within the next 50 years, making Tangier residents potentially "among the first climate change refugees in the continental USA," the authors concluded.
They proposed a plan they say could significantly extend the island's lifespan: building a breakwater system offshore, together with a dune system that would catch wind-borne sediment along the shore between the breakwaters and the existing shoreline.
In addition, dredged material could be used to restore former island ridges that have become marshland, according to the plan.
"If that comes to pass, Tangier will be restored to what it was in the past," said Tangier Councilwoman Anna Pruitt-Parks.
The catch is, the plan would cost an estimated $20 million to $30 million, according to the study.
Pruitt-Parks created an online fundraiser to purchase and mail copies of a 2014 documentary about Tangier to every member of Congress, in an effort to make them aware of the island's plight — and of its value to the nation.
"At the end of the day, if we approach this from a government standpoint and go to the government for any funds for projects, all that money has got to come through Congress," Pruitt-Parks said.
"A lot of people will say from the science point that 450 people just isn't cost-effective, but here's what you're losing besides the 450 people ... It's our aquatic environment and our aquatic ecosystem that's in distress ... They can't get that back ... If that's lost, it's lost forever," she said.
Scientists, engineers and planners are considering a range of options to ensure Tangier's survival: from building seawalls around the island, to using dredge spoils to build it up, to installing artificial oyster reefs to protect the shoreline.
One protective measure — a mile-long rock structure along most of the island's western shore — was built in 1989 at a cost of $10.6 million. That has helped protect the island's airport.
Additionally, six stone breakwaters were installed on the eastern side of nearby Port Isobel in the 2000s.
And a $4.2 million jetty to protect Tangier's harbor is closer to becoming a reality.
The Army Corps is preparing to transition to the design and implementation phase of the project and recently received approval for a feasibility study, according to Gregory C. Steele, chief of the Water Resources Division of the Army Corps' Norfolk District.
The next step is to execute a construction agreement, which is a legal document, with the state, Steele said.
It was nearly five years ago that Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and Col. Paul Olsen of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers traveled to Tangier to announce the signing of an agreement to build the long-awaited jetty.
The project had been on the drawing board for more than a decade but federal funds were not available.
Former Gov. Bob McDonnell's administration focused on securing the funding, resulting in a cost-sharing agreement with Virginia and approval of the project.
Another measure that could help preserve Tangier, if it is funded, is using dredged material to build up the island, similar to the successful Poplar Island project in Maryland.
The Army Corps has not yet received Congressional authority to study that concept, Steele said.
However, two steps have been taken in an effort to move it forward.
First, the Virginia Marine Resources Commission submitted a request to the assistant secretary of the Army for civil works, asking that its request be transmitted to Congress about the need for authority to do the study.
The assistant secretary did forward the request to Congress, Steele said, adding, "Now it's in Congress' hands to authorize if they choose to."
Secondly, Congress in the 2016 Water Infrastructure Improvements Act authorized the Army Corps to establish 10 pilot projects around the country to look at ways to beneficially use dredge spoils, "even if those means are not the most economically efficient uses," Steele said.
Both the Norfolk District and Baltimore District of the Corps submitted Tangier as a proposed pilot project.
They are waiting to hear from Corps' headquarters about which projects are selected.
"Tangier could be a testing site for sea-level projects," Pruitt-Parks said.
She addressed the image some in the outside world have of Tangier.
"Basically, because 87 percent of us voted for Trump, it's assumed that none of us believe in sea-level rise or believe in climate change, which is just not true ... We wake up and every day the erosion is in our faces. We see it every day, so we know what the erosion is doing ... If there is sea-level rise, we can't see it, because we see the erosion, and it's hard to see all of it," she said.
In addition to the Army Corps, other agencies are coming up with innovative ideas to try to help Tangier.
Again, funding is needed to move those ideas forward.
The A-NPDC's Smith said Tangier is "one of the more active communities that we work with in terms of being proactive about doing something about this problem — and that's refreshing."
Smith and others from the agency traveled to Tangier several times to work with island officials on a recently completed hazard mitigation plan and an initiative they hope will buy the island some time.
"It's been really productive," he said, adding, "They're really encouraging of us trying to get a long-range plan in place."
Tangier officials "have a plan A preferred option," Smith said.
That is to remain on the island as a community, as opposed to other communities threatened by the sea that have opted to move away.
"They're willing to do whatever it takes," he said.
The problem is, what's necessary to make staying possible likely will take millions of dollars and decades to accomplish, like some of the engineering solutions in the 2015 study.
Smith in the meantime is concurrently trying to work with islanders "to develop a plan B."
"Whether you call it erosion, whether you call it storm surge, whether you call it sea-level rise, there are hazards out there that they may not be able to rebound from over a shorter time frame than their plan A option. So there's got to be a mechanism in place to help them during the next major hazard," he said, adding, "They are one good storm away from not being able to rebound."
Plan B has to consider other issues besides erosion, including retaining the island's young people, maintaining resources like potable water and "all the other things they are up against that are also straining their community," he said.
A first step is updating the town comprehensive plan, which hasn't been done in years, Smith said.
His agency is looking for funds to pay for that — "to come up with a customized plan for them that has a short-term component and a long-term component. We'd like to get into the community and have this discussion with them — amongst the elders, the youth — about do they want to stay together collectively."
One innovative concept the agency is exploring for Tangier is a partnership with the private sector to construct living breakwaters to protect the island.
The concrete structures absorb wave action and, at the same time, support oyster growth — the latter generates nutrient credits, making them economically attractive to private businesses.
"All of this is still exploratory and hypothetical because there are still some intermediate steps that are going to have to occur on the federal level to allow things like this to move forward, but it's something that we are open to supporting," Smith said.
The living breakwaters absorb wave energy and "would buy Tangier some time for these larger-scale options that are being explored by the Army Corps," as well as growing oysters and improving water quality at the same time, he said.
"We're hoping to kickstart a campaign to get these constructed through a public-private partnership" — with volunteers helping build the structures, and fundraising and possibly grant funding to cover costs, Smith said.
The living breakwaters will take only thousands of dollars to build, versus millions for a sea wall.
A similar but smaller project will be constructed this summer off Saxis, which also is experiencing erosion.
The goal is in five to seven years to have multiple living breakwaters protecting much of Tangier.
Smith credited Tangier officials for steps they already have taken to try to advance their cause. This includes working to get much of the island designated a historic district on the National Register of Historic Places, which happened in 2014.
"That's going to be hard for the federal government to deny a place that's on the historic designation," he said.
"They're doing all the right things — I give them a lot of credit for that."
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