You could drive down Route 16 toward Taylor’s Island in eastern Dorchester county every day of life and never notice the little slab of concrete off to your north, set across a ditch where Madison Bay, off the Little Choptank River, presses against the roadway.
But thousands of acres of farms and timberlands stretching south for miles from the other side of the road have depended on it to survive for close to half a century.
Just now Harold Travers, who farms 2,500 acres around here, is fishing out a stick that the tide coming in from the Chesapeake has drifted up against the dam. It could jam the little dam’s floodgate—a round valve that shuts tight from the pressure of an incoming tide. That keeps salty Bay water from intruding through drainage ditch networks that extend throughout an estimated 5000 acres of woodlands and 2000 acres of farms. On low tide, the valve opens to let rainwater run off all these lands toward the Bay.
“I’m 71 years old and I was probably in my late teens when the county put (the floodgate) in there. My father at the time agreed to maintain it. . . when my father died, I’ve been maintaining it ever since,” Travers says.
Landscapes are subtle here in Dorchester, Maryland’s fourth largest county by land area—largest overall when you include its extensive tidal waters.
Half the county’s land ranges from inches to five or six feet above sea level. Fortunately, average tides are subtle too, normal highs being only a couple feet above normal lows.
So it is that the modest concrete dam and its floodgate have been enough so far to hold back the Bay. There are scores of mostly smaller floodgates deployed around Dorchester to keep the Bay at bay, Travers says. He has about a dozen on his farms.
“We’re really glad to have ‘em, cause if they weren’t there we’d have thousands of acres of farmland and woodland that wouldn’t be farmable and the trees would be dead,” says Travers.
But if sea level around the Chesapeake rises as projected, within a few decades most of the floodgates will be overwhelmed. “The limits to these tide gates are . . . a hurricane tide. They’re no good for that. But you only usually have a hurricane tide once a year (and) the land can get itself back; but it can’t get itself back with three or four.
“With these gates, now we’re able to stop it. I don’t know how long,” he says.
Other adaptations around parts of Dorchester to salt tides are also subtle to the non-expert—more plantings of wheat and sorghum as opposed to the dominant corn and soybeans. The former can take more salt. Equally important, Travers says, the county’s large population of whitetail deer don’t like to eat grains like sorghum.
If the tide gates get breached more often, “I don’t know what else you could do but berm (dike) the farms up. In my lifetime I think we’re still gonna be all right. But after that, they say the sea’s rising, so who knows what’s gonna happen,” Travers says.