Eastern Shore

Delmarva peninsula - Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia Eastern Shore peninsula Eastern Shore watersheds - bayside and seaside
Virginia has two counties on the DelMarVa Peninsula, and the Eastern Shore is divided into bayside and seaside watersheds
Sources: US Geological Survey National Atlas and Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy

The Eastern Shore of Virginia is the most-southern 70-80 miles of a peninsula located between the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. The Delmarva Peninsula is named for Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia.

a pre-World War II postcard shows the SS Del-Mar-Va, one of the ferries that linked the Eastern Shore to Princess Anne County (now City of Virginia Beach) until the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel opened in 1964
a pre-World War II postcard shows the SS Del-Mar-Va, one of the ferries that linked the Eastern Shore to Princess Anne County (now City of Virginia Beach) until the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel opened in 1964
Source: Boston Public Library, The S. S. Del-Mar-Va., Norfolk, VA

Physically, the Eastern Shore Route 13 marks a rough approximation of the watershed divide - land on the "bayside" of the peninsula drains to the Chesapeake, while land on the "seaside" drains to the Atlantic Ocean (and is not part of the Chesapake Bay watershed).

the Eastern Shore of Virginia is part of the Delmarva (<strong>DE</strong>laware, <strong>MA</strong>ryland, <strong>V</strong>irgini<strong>A</strong>) Peninsula, between the Atlantic Ocean and Chesapeake Bay
the Eastern Shore of Virginia is part of the Delmarva (DElaware, MAryland, VirginiA) Peninsula, between the Atlantic Ocean and Chesapeake Bay
Source: National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) , Landsat Program

The Eastern Shore is part of the Coastal Plain physiographic province. Sediments have been deposited on the plain over the last 225 million years as the Appalachian Mountains have eroded, but most of the eroded remains of those mountains washed off into the Atlantic Ocean.

What remains today underneath the Eastern Shore are more recent layers of unconsolidated sediments, deposited mostly since the Cretaceous Period, over 6,000 feet thick underneath the Eastern Shore. The sediments offer little economic value other than for construction fill material, but the groundwater within the sediments is highly valued.1

how bedrock dips underneath the Coastal Plain, between Fall Line and Atlantic Ocean
how bedrock dips underneath the Coastal Plain, between Fall Line and Atlantic Ocean
Source: US Geological Survey,
Professional Paper 1404-C: Hydrogeologic Framework of the Virginia Coastal Plain (Figure 5)

On the flat Eastern Shore, the option of damming a creek and building a reservoir to provide water for municipal or industrial use is minimal. There are only 16 named ponds/reservoirs/lakes in Accomack County and just 14 in Northampton County, according to the US Geological Survey (USGS) Geographic Names Information System - though over 300 small farm ponds that supply irrigation water are not officially named on the USGS topographic maps.2

Virginia Truck and Experimental Station Reservoir (Accomack County)
Virginia Truck and Experimental Station Reservoir (Accomack County)
Source: US Geological Survey National Map

All drinking water supplies on the Eastern Shore (Accomack and Northampton counties) use groundwater as the source. Wells supply water to individual houses and communities, such as the Town of Cape Charles. Using authority in the safe Drinking Water Act, in 1997 the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) designated groundwater on the Eastern Shore (but excluding Chincoteague and Tangier islands) as a Sole Source Aquifer, because there are no significant fresh water streams on the surface to provide an alternative supply. Designation means that projects involving Federal funds, and which have the potential to contaminate the aquifer, must be reviewed by EPA.3

Wells are drilled to intercept water-saturated regions of underground sandy sediments, known as aquifers. Different aquifers are separated from each other by impervious layers of clay known as confining units.

On the Eastern Shore, the deeper Yorktown-Eastover aquifer system, in sediments deposited during the Miocene Epoch 5-23 million years ago, is the preferred source for municipal drinking water. The shallower Columbia aquifer, in sediments deposited during the Pleistocene 10-15,000 years ago, is more vulnerable to contamination from septic systems, fertilizer nitrates, and pesticides/herbicides used on local farms. Wells drilled into the Columbia aquifer do provide irrigation water for agricultural use as well as water for individual houses, but the aquifer protection priority is clear:4

Simply stated, the most important area to protect in order to assure continued good quality and large quantities of ground water throughout the Eastern Shore is the center of the peninsula.

saltwater intrusion
saltwater intrusion
Source: US Geological Survey, Southern California Salt-Water Intrusion

Primary recharge of the groundwater occurs along the spine of the Eastern Shore, the high ground traced by the US 13 highway. Though most rain will run off the highway, rooftops, and farm fields into ditches and flow towards either the bay or ocean, some rain will seep underground. In the summer, much of that underground water is sucked up by plant roots and evapo-transpired into the atmosphere, but in winter a higher percentage on rainwater will remain underground.

only a small portion of the Eastern Shore exceeds 50 feet in elevation
only a small portion of the Eastern Shore exceeds 50 feet in elevation
Source: US Geological Survey, Simulation of Groundwater-Level and
Salinity Changes in the Eastern Shore, Virginia
(Figure 2)

Near Chincoteague, rainwater may travel 500 feet-5 miles underground. A raindrop could spend as much as 30-300 years underground, if it took a deep journey through the Columbia aquifer before discharge at the surface. The confining layers separating aquifers allow some flow of water at depth, but the deeper the aquifer the older the water within it.

In the upper portion of the confined Yorktown-Eastover aquifer, groundwater is 300-3,000 years old. In the middle portion, water is estimated to have been buried underground for 1,000-10,000 years. The lowest part of the Yorktown-Eastover aquifer, the water could have been underground for 10,000-30,000 years.5

Most raindrops spend only a few months or years underground. In Accomack County, 80% of the water flowing in the 30 creeks in the county is groundwater that seeped to the surface. About 10% of the rain that falls on the surface (4-5"of the 44 inches/year of rainfall) will recharge the Columbia aquifer each year, while just 0.05 inches/year will seep further down to recharge the Yorktown-Eastover aquifer.6

groundwater recharge area for Accomack County
groundwater recharge area for Yorktown-Eastover aquifer in Accomack County (red line is US 13)
(rainfall landing east or west of "spine" soaks into Columbia aquifer, then flows to Chesapeake Bay/Atlantic Ocean)
Source: Accomack County, Draft Comprehensive Plan Update - 2007

The raindrops can carry underground whatever they dissolved in the atmosphere (such as sulfate ions) or on the land surface (such as oil drips from automobiles), potentially altering the quality of the groundwater. Companies that pump out septic tanks in Accomack County used to dump the waste into unlined lagoons, allowing leachate from untreated human waste to seep into the groundwater.

Nitrates from failed septic systems, or a leak in the leachate collection system for the wastewater treatment plant on Assawoman Creek, can still pollute surface streams and groundwater. The Town of Chicoteague has to pipe water five miles from wells at the NASA facility on Wallops Island, because the island's own groundwater has been polluted by septic systems and brackish water intrusion.7

location of North Landfill, Accomack County
location of North Landfill, Accomack County
Source: US Geological Survey Hallwood topographic map

Underneath the surface in Accomack and Northampton counties, freshwater "floats" in a layer about about 350 feet deep on top of saltwater, which is slightly more dense than freshwater. At greater depth, the pores between the rock particles in aquifers are filled with seawater that is too saline for human use. If pressure is reduced by pumping freshwater faster than it is recharged from the surface (similar to sucking fast on a milkshake through a straw), a "cone of depression" forms as pressure drops near the well and saltwater squeezes in from the sides and below in the aquifers.

groundwater aquifers supply drinking water on Eastern Shore
groundwater aquifers supply drinking water on Eastern Shore
Source: Our Eastern Shore Groundwater: Part I - Where is the groundwater and how much is there?

On the southern tip of the Eastern Shore, groundwater supply and quality are affected by a rare geologic phenomenon. A meteor/comet ("bolide") crashed into the Atlantic Ocean off the shoreline of Virginia 35 million years ago, cracking through all the layers of sediment and even into the crystalline basement. The heat of impact vaporized much of the water, creating a hypersaline pool (50% saltier than seawater) that was trapped as debris refilled the crater, creating an inland salt-water wedge that limits access to usable grounwater between the Eastern Shore and Newport News.8

crater from bolide impact 35 million years ago still affects quality of groundwater in Eastern Shore and Hampton Roads
crater from bolide impact 35 million years ago still affects quality of groundwater in Eastern Shore and Hampton Roads
Source: US Geological Survey, Groundwater-Quality Data and Regional Trends in the Virginia Coastal Plain, 1906–2007 (Plate 9)

Agricultural or industrial operations on the Eastern Shore, including large chicken processing factories, could deplete an aquifer faster than it is replenished by rainfall seeping underground. In 1976, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) designated the Eastern Shore as a Ground Water Management Area, requiring a permit for withdrawals exceeding 300,000 gallons per month.

Groundwater is a renewable resource - but excessive pumping could result in saltwater intrusion into the aquifers, making the water useless for human or agricultural use. Cape May, New Jersey was forced to built an expensive desalination system in 1998, after saltwater contaminated the municipal wells.

Today, withdrawals from the Yorktown-Eastover Aquifer exceed recharge by roughly 1 million gallons/day. Perdue Farms and Tysons Food pump more groundwater than any other users on the Eastern Shore. In Accomack County, 66% of groundwater permits are for agricultural operations. In Northampton County, 75% of groundwater permits are for agriculture.9

The Eastern Shore is one of two Ground Water Management Areas in Virginia
The Eastern Shore is one of two Ground Water Management Areas in Virginia
Source: Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, Detailed Map of Groundwater Management Areas

According to a groundwater specialist discussing the long-term sustainability of pumping water from the Yorktown Formation for municipal use:10

During a "normal" year on the Eastern Shore 44 inches... of rain water falls on the surface
Only 6 inches of this reaches the Columbia Aquifer, which is about 20 feet below the ground
Only .05 inches of the 44 inches ultimately reaches the Yorktown or confinement aquifer, where pumping occurs
84% of the precipitation is lost to evaporation
15% of the precipitation is retained in surface water streams and ponds
Only 1% of the 44 inches of annual rainfall reaches the confinement aquifer for pumping use

Water management concerns are not limited to groundwater. Sea level rise is recognized as a clear threat to the Eastern Shore, which has few locations higher than 50 feet.

In the last 35 million years, the Eastern Shore has been below sea level long enough to accumulate over 1,100 feet of sediments above the impact crater.11 In the last 20,000 years, the landscape of the Eastern Shore was above water.

Sediments were reshaped by rivers and wave action, as sea levels rose after the Ice Age. The Susquehanna River deposited sand and silt from Pennsylvania and New York. Ocean currents carried sediments from the Hudson River and Delaware River south, extending Eastern Shore to its current dimensions about 3,000 years ago.12

during the Pleistocene Epoch, the original sediments that formed the Yorktown aquifer were eroded by the predecessor to the modern Susquehanna River, creating major paleochannel aquifers that cross the Eastern Shore
during the Pleistocene Epoch, the original sediments that formed the Yorktown aquifer were eroded by the predecessor to the modern Susquehanna River, creating major paleochannel aquifers that cross the Eastern Shore
Source: US Geological Survey, Simulation of Groundwater-Level and Salinity Changes in the Eastern Shore, Virginia (Figure 6)

The shape of the peninsula is highly irregular, with extensive indentations filled with bays and marshes, plus many "necks" (extensions of land jutting into the water). Approximately 25% of the state's shoreline mileage, and almost 50% of Virginia's tidal marsh acreage, is located on the Eastern Shore.13

If sea level rises as predicted, the barrier islands and marshes on the eastern edge will migrate westward. However, Tangier Island in Accomack County and other islands in the Chesapeake Bay could disappear entirely underwater.14

Politically, the modern Delmarva Peninsula is divided between three separate states. Within Virginia, the Eastern Shore region consists of two counties - Accomack and Northampton, both created by 1643. Both counties are rural and relatively poor today, despite having been settled continuously by Europeans longer than nearly any other area in North America.

After 400 years of potential economic growth, Accomack and Northampton counties have some of the lowest median household incomes in the state. According to the Bureau of Census, between 2006-2010 16% of individuals in Accomack County and 19% of individuals in Northampton County fell below the poverty line, higher than the average of 10% for the entire state of Virginia.15

To encourage companies to locate on the Eastern Shore, the region was designated by Virginia as an Enterprise Zone in the 1990's, authorizing incentive grants for job creation and construction of business facilities.16

Accomack and Northampton counties relied upon fishing, oystering/clamming, and agriculture until recently. The Hog Island sheep breed developed in isolation over 200 years, as sheep struggled to survive on the barrier island. Today, the heritage breed survives in exhibits at sites such as Mount Vernon, because all sheep were removed from the island in the 1970's by The Nature Conservancy in order to restore/preserve natural habitat.17

Hog Island sheep at Ingles Farm (Radford) Hog Island, 2011
Hog Island was home of the Hog Island sheep (photographed at Ingles Farm in Radford)
Image Source: US Geological Survey Map Store, Quinby Inlet topographic map

The future for economic growth on the Eastern Shore includes tourism and second home development. The economic situation was decribed by the Virginia Economic Development Partnership in 2001:18

The Shore boasts a world-class coastal ecosystem, the last undeveloped coastal wilderness on the Eastern Seaboard, extraordinarily productive waters and farm land, and a tightly knit community distinguished by its unique towns and villages. These assets - lost to so many other coastal places - are still intact because Shore residents are determined to protect their natural, cultural and historic resources as they seek to strengthen their rural economy. But the Shore also suffers from a high poverty rate, low median income and widespread substandard housing, brought on in the past two decades by the collapse of the farm and seafood industries.

Eastern Shore at night - dark, compared to Hampton Roads and other urbanized areas
Eastern Shore at night - dark, compared to Hampton Roads and other urbanized areas
Source: National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Earth Observatory - U.S. Atlantic Seaboard at Night

Despite the economic stress, Northampton County rejected proposals in the 1990's for a new state prison and for a facility to treat contaminated soil shipped in from northern states. Instead, the Eastern Shore identified six economic priorities: agriculture, seafood/aquaculture, heritage tourism, arts/crafts/local products, research/education and new industry. "New industry" has a unique focus. The Cape Charles Sustainable Technologies Industrial Park, an ambitious plan for an eco-industrial park, was launched in the mid-1990's. However, so far the sustainable development industrial park has failed to attract and retain tenants.19

Modern industries are reluctant to build manufacturing facilities on the Eastern Shore, because transportation to market is slow and costly. Access to markets via road and rail transportation matters; manufacturing is limited, and the Eastern Shore ships mostly seafood and farm products. Recreational and small commercial fishing boats dominate the marinas. There is no deep water port, though reconstructions of tall ships from the colonial era can sail into Cape Charles harbor for tourism festivals.

Chesapeake Bay from Landsat 7
Chesapeake Bay, with Eastern Shore on the east and Northern Neck/Middle Peninsula on the west
Source: US Geological Survey

Accomack County is twice the size of Northampton County, and physically closer to the customers who by agricultural and seafood products in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York. The 2010 Census recorded 33,164 residents in Accomack County, compared to only 12,389 for Northampton County. In the 1900 Census, Accomack County had 32,570 residents and Northampton County had 13,770 people. A century earlier in 1800, Accomack County had 15,693 residents and Northampton County had 6,763.20

In 2011, the health commissioner of Virginia approved relocating the only hospital on the Eastern Shore from Northampton to Accomack, to be closer to the center of population.21

As the song goes, "the times they are a-changing." Wallops Island, in the northeast corner of Accomack County next to Chincoteague, is the site of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport, and has expanded beyond research flights. NASA has funded eight re-supply missions from Wallops to the International Space Station between 2012 and 2021, and Orbital Sciences Corp. is competing for additional space launch business at Wallops. Other companies are considering Wallops as a site for space tourism launches, though sending humans into space might require building a third launch pad at the site.22

In addition, the two runways at Wallops Island exceeding 8,000 feet in length will be used for more military operations. The Navy built the first airbase there in 1942, when airplane patrols were increased to stop German submarines from sinking ships along the Atlantic Ocean coastline. Seven decades later, the Navy needed an additional outlying landing field (OLF) for pilots to practice carrier landings before landing on a real ship. The existing Naval Auxiliary Landing Field (NALF) Fentress near Oceana Naval Air Station in Virginia Beach lacked capacity to satisfy all training requirements, forcing expensive deployments to Jacksonville, Florida. Wallops was selected as an alternative to Fentress, and will serve as a site for up to 20,000 practice landings/takeoffs per year.

Pilotless Aircraft Research Station, Wallops Island, Virginia, in 1947 (note launch ramp in the foreground)
Pilotless Aircraft Research Station, Wallops Island, Virginia, in 1947 (note launch ramp in the foreground)
Source: National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), SP-4103 Model Research - Volume 1

Wallops is one on many sites suitable for training military personnel to fly drones. The first two successful drone airplane landings on an aircraft carrier occurred in July 2013 off the Virginia coast - but the third attempt was foiled by a software glitch, so the drone diverted instead to land at Wallops.

Wallops Research Park had competition for becoming a center of employment for companies integrating drones into civilian airspace. In 2013, 24 states bid for one of the six test sites to be established by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), before the FAA certified drones to perform commercial operations.23

Virginia ended up as one of the six winners when the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership (Virginia Tech, the University of Maryland and Rutgers University) was chosen. That consortium was tasked with testing the software that ensures safe responses by drones after they lose their radio connections with operators.

Wallops Island Research Range
Wallops Island Research Range
Source: National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Wallops Range and Mission Management Office

Virginia Tech's Kentland Experimental Aerial Systems Laboratory, located at its experimental farm near Blacksburg, expanded to include testing at Dahlgren Naval Surface Warfare Center (King George County), Fort Pickett (primarily in Nottoway County near Blackstone), and Wallops Island (Accomack County).

There was no opportunity for a drone test site in Charlottesville - in 2013, that city became the first city in the US to block the use of unmanned surveillance drones. However, the first authorized use of a drone for law enforcement occurred near Charlottesville in September, 2014, when the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership was given special permission by FAA to search for a missing University of Virginia student.24

Completion of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel in 1964 brought the Eastern Shore 90 minutes closer to Virginia Beach/Norfolk. In anticipation of selling houses to both commuters and second-home owners, developers have built golf courses and housing developments such as Bay Creek in Northampton County.

the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel replaced 2-hour ferry services with a 30-minute drive when it opened on April 14, 1964
the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel replaced 2-hour ferry services with a 30-minute drive when it opened on April 14, 1964
Source: Joint Legislative Audit And Review Commission, The Future Of The Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel (Figure 1)

Still, suburbanization has been slow to affect Northampton County. Population declined steadily from a peak of 18,565 residents in 1930, including a 25% drop between 1960-2010 after the bridge-tunnel was operational. The town of Cape Charles experienced a brief revitalization with old Victorian homes being repaired, but lost 50% of its residents between 1960-2010.

No surge of suburbanites arrived to offset the residents who migrated elsewhere as fishing, oystering, and farming jobs disappeared; only 12,389 residents were recorded in Northampton County during the 2010 Census. Expectations that the "Atlantic Coast Megalopolis" would expand to the Eastern Shore have not become true.25

population in Northampton County continued to decline, even after completion of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel
population in Northampton County continued to decline even after completion of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel
Source: Bureau of Census, Virginia Population of Counties by Decennial Census: 1900 to 1990

Cost of daily commuting to jobs in South Hampton Roads may have been a major factor. The Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel has charged one of the highest tolls in the nation, in order to repay construction bonds. Living in Northampton County and working in Hampton Roads involved paying fee that was not required if someone chose to live in a suburb in Virginia Beach.

the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel includes two underwater tunnels, one under the Thimble Shoal channel for shipping traffic to reach Hampton Roads and one under the Chesapeake Channel for traffic to Baltimore
the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel includes two underwater tunnels, one under the Thimble Shoal channel for shipping traffic to reach Hampton Roads and one under the Chesapeake Channel for traffic to Baltimore
Source: Joint Legislative Audit And Review Commission, The Future Of The Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel (Figure 3)

Landowners and developers planning to convert Eastern Shore agricultural land into new subdivisions would benefit from a reduced fare across the bridge-tunnel. With a faster, cheaper commute, Northampton County could experience the same sprawl as Loudoun, Stafford, Fluvanna, Hanover, and Gloucester counties in the last decade.

In 2001, bridge-tunnel managers created a 30% discount for commuters going back and forth between Virginia Beach and Northampton County. The old price was $10/trip, in either direction. Under the new pricing system, a discount was offered for a return trip within 24 hours, reducing the roundtrip price from $20 to $14 if completed within 24 hours. Prices were raised in 2004 to $12 one-way, $17 roundtrip. In 2013, a new discount was offered: customers making 30 trips in one month would pay just $5 each way.26

The Commonwealth of Virginia has provided no construction money to build the initial bridge-tunnel or to expand it, though the state does provide urban street funding for maintaining the 17.6 mile long facility. Anticipating that toll revenues might not be sufficient to cover costs, and maintaining the state's "pay as you go" approach in the 1950's, the General Assembly created a special district to issue revenue bonds to be repaid through tolls and build/manage the structure.

The legislature chartered a political subdivision (separate from cities/counties) to be managed by an 11-member commission including one member from the state, two members from Accomack County, two members from Northampton County, and one member each from Virginia Beach, Norfolk, Portsmouth, Chesapeake, Hampton, and Newport News.

The 1956 legislation included two members from the Peninsula cities of Newport News and Hampton, showing how the bridge-tunnel was expected to have region-wide economic and transportation impacts rather than affect primarily the Eastern Shore counties. Despite the 90-mile shortcut provided after 1964 by the bridge-tunnel for traffic headed north to Delaware and New York, I-95 rather than Route 13 attracted most of the traffic.

Commercial businesses on the Eastern Shore, including poultry plants, continued to ship primarily to customers towards the north rather than use the bridge-tunnel to ship to customers in Hamton Roads or to export products through the Virginia Port Authority terminals.27

the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel reduces the distance from Norfolk-Philadelphia by 90 miles - but traffic coming up I-95 rarely diverts to Route 13
the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel reduces the distance from Norfolk-Philadelphia by 90 miles - but traffic coming up I-95 rarely diverts to Route 13
Map Source: US Fish and Wildlife Service, Wetlands Mapper

Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel logo The lack of business affected the financing for the project. The Virginia General Assembly authorized the district to sell only revenue bonds. The state did not issue general obligation bonds, which would have been backed by the full faith and credit of Virginia, to fund construction.

The bridge-tunnel commission sold $200 million in revenue bonds in 1960, with half of the total assigned to Series C. In 1970, the commission defaulted on the "Chessie C" series, because traffic projections had been too optimistic and toll revenues were inadequate to pay bondholders what they had been promised. In 1985, revenues had increased, past due interest was paid, and the commission's credit rating improved.28

In 2012, the Fitch bond rating agency affirmed the A- rating for roughly half of the outstanding bridge-tunnel bonds, and noted:29

The district's bridge and tunnel facility is monopolistic in nature, serving as the only linkage between the metropolitan Hampton Roads region and Virginia's eastern shore. Volume has been relatively stable, growing at a 0.7% compound annual growth rate (CAGR) over the last decade. However, approximately 17% of traffic is estimated to be leisure in nature, destined for Virginia Beach and the Outer Banks region, providing some concern.

The General Assembly approved phased expansion in 1990, and capacity on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel is being increased through major projects every 20 or so years as old bonds are retired. According to the original 1956 enabling legislation, when all bonds have been paid the bridge-tunnel will become a toll-free road in the state highway system - which will occur 100 years after initial authorization, if current plans are fully implemented.

Parallel bridge spans were constructed in 1995-99, but the two tunnels over Thimble Shoal and Chesapeake channels still remain as 2-lane bottlenecks. Since the bridge-tunnel still has greater capacity than demand except during occasional holidays, traffic flows smoothly and there is no commuter rush-hour traffic jam at the 2-lane bottlenecks.

Building parallel tunnels is far more expensive than building parallel bridges, and the level of traffic does not require increasing capacity - but the tunnels will still be expanded. In 2013, the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and Tunnel Commission committed to building the Thimble Shoal Parallel Tunnel Project, primarily to ensure continued operations in case of disaster and to allow complete closure of tunnels for maintenance. (A floodgate did not close at Portsmouth's Midtown Tunnel in 2003 during Hurricane Isabel, and the flooded tunnel was closed for weeks.)30

the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel now has parallel spans, but not parallel tunnels
the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel now has parallel spans, but not parallel tunnels
Source: 2015 Governor's Transportation Conference, Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel Parallel Thimble Shoal Tunnel - Project Overview

The new tunnel under the Thimble Shoal Channel could be installed at a greater depth than the 1964 tunnel. The chief engineer of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel recommended in 2000 that designers plan for a 68-foot deep channel to be authorized in the future, beyond the now-authorized 55-foot depth, so coal exporters from Norfolk could use bigger ships.

Ships sailing through the 50-foot deep Chesapeake Channel go north 175 miles to Baltimore and deepening the channel all that distance is unlikely, so there is expected to be no requirement for the future parallel tunnel in the Chesapeake Channel to be installed any deeper than the current tunnel.31

the Craney Island
Dredged Material Management Area (CIDMMA) does not accept sediments dredged from the Chesapeake Bay, so the material excavated for the new tunnel will be barged to the Norfolk Ocean Disposal Site
the Craney Island Dredged Material Management Area (CIDMMA) does not accept sediments dredged from the Chesapeake Bay, so the material excavated for the new tunnel will be barged to the Norfolk Ocean Disposal Site
Source: 2015 Governor's Transportation Conference, Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel Parallel Thimble Shoal Tunnel - Project Overview

The commission had planned to start construction in 2021, but accelerated the date due to low interest rates. The commission decided to increase tolls 10% starting in 2014, with future 10% increases every five years, to generate the revenue required to pay off the new bonds that will be sold to fund construction. Reflecting the financial constraints imposed by funding construction through revenue bonds, paid by users of the bridge-tunnel, construction of parallel tunnels underneath the Chesapeake Channel is not planned until 2040.32

building parallel tunnels will require widening the existing islands
building parallel tunnels will require widening the existing islands
Source: 2015 Governor's Transportation Conference, Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel Parallel Thimble Shoal Tunnel - Project Overview

One funding alternative not accepted in the region was for bridge-tunnel and state/county officials to mesh planning for land use and transportation. The officials could have crafted a fee for new development in Northampton County comparable to the "proffer" system used in Northern Virginia, where developers seeking a rezoning to build new houses must first pay a fee to cover some of the costs for builfding new public facilities (schools, roads, libraries, parks...) for the new residents.

If an equivalent proffer fee was created for Eastern Shore developers to fund bridge-tunnel expansion, such an arrangement could spread the financial burden beyond just current residents, and beyond the drivers who use the bridge-tunnel. If builders who profited from new construction on the Eastern Shore paid for transportation improvements, then those costs would be incorporated into the price of new houses. Ultimately, Northampton County residents who bought new houses would end up paying a part of the costs for expanding the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel to provide faster commuting to jobs in Virginia Beach/Norfolk.

However, there is little local support for increasing government-mandated fees or encouraging suburbanization in Northampton County. In addition, there is institutional inertia separating state-based transportation planning and locally-based land use planning. Most importantly, the replacement of ferries by the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel did not lead to a dramatic increase in suburban sprawl in Northampton County.

Land prices on the Eastern Shore remain low compared to Hampton Roads, but any Northampton suburban development boom could be constrained by inadequate supplies of fresh drinking water - even if commuter transportation to Hampton Roads became "cheap." Generating freshwater though desalination may remain too expensive due to the energy required to separate the salt. "Aquifer storage and recovery" (pumping Cape Charles' treated wastewater underground to recharge an aquifer) could become an option, if public attitudes shift.

One long-range possibility that could transform the Eastern Shore: energy development. Wind energy could be developed first in the Chesapeake Bay, where the costs for building towers and transmission lines would be far less than hypothetical sites in the Atlantic Ocean. Any large-scale wind farms along the Atlantic Flyway will face environmental restrictions, to protect migrating birds and bats.

The oil and gas potential of the Outer Continental Shelf is unknown, but Jurassic-age rocks in the Baltimore Canyon Trough are a particular target for future development. In 2008, the Obama Administration planned Mid-Atlantic Oil and Gas Lease Sale 220 - but cancelled the sale after the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico. While Governor McDonnell continued to propose making Virginia the "Energy Capital of the East Coast," no state leases were proposed for oil and gas drilling within state waters. Instead, the focus was on drilling offshore in Federal waters, 50 miles or more east of the Atlantic shoreline of Virginia.

If offshore areas along the Atlantic Coast turned out to be as rich in hydrocarbons as the Gulf Coast, then an oil/gas port comparable to Morgan City, Louisiana wouldll be needed to support such development. One candidate in Virginia is the Town of Cape Charles at the southern tip of Northampton County, though Portsmouth and even Craney Island could be major competitors.

The industrial potential of the Town of Cape Charles to support offshore oil, gas, or wind energy projects is constrained by the depth of the shipping channel. A precast concrete plant was built in 1964 at Cape Charles to supply the 3,000 piers supporting the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, and is the logical site for constructing platforms for offshore wind farms. However, the ability of that concrete fabrication plant to compete for major contracts today is limited by the narrow 18-foot deep channel.

The Sparrows Point Shipyard in Baltimore supplied the concrete tubes installed in 2013 for the parallel Midtown Tunnel, connecting Portsmouth and Norfolk underneath the Elizabeth River. The Bayshore Concrete plant at Cape Charles needed a 35-foot channel to float the tubes out into the Chesapeake Bay, but the projected cost was $35 million - at a time when the US Congress had reduced Federal funding for small port dredging projects. By 2011, the effort to obtain Federal funds was reduced to requests for a 22-foot deep channel.33

The land use planner for Cape Charles, Tom Bonadeo, explained in 2012 why a deeper channel was needed to trigger new economic development, beyond the transport of Bay Coast Railroad barges south to Little Creek:34

The town of Cape Charles believes dredging will open doors: Virginia’s off-shore wind energy, the concrete company’s ability to produce gravity foundations for the wind turbines, as well as the channel’s depth to accommodate rocket parts for Wallops Island would all depend on the greater depth Cape Charles seeks.

"We don’t want to be limited to barge traffic for the rest of our lives," said Bonadeo. "There’s not a lot of growth in that."

Eastern Shore
note contrast between Atlantic Ocean/Chesapeake Bay sides of Eastern Shore
Source: NASA Earth from Space, Southern Delmarva Peninsula (October 1995)

Hopes for an economic boom from offshore oil drill rig construction and operations were postponed in March 2016. The Northampton Board of Supervisors passed a resolution opposing inclusion of waters off Virginia's coast in the Federal government's 2017-2022 Outer Continental Shelf leasing program. Accomack County had done the same in January, choosing to focus on building its tourism-based businesses rather than risk an oil spill.

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management released its 2017-2022 leasing plans shortly after the Northampton County vote. All proposals for leases off the coasts of the southeastern states were dropped, eliminating at least for the moment that potential for new industrial development at Cape Charles.35

nautical chart showing Cape Charles harbor
nautical chart showing Cape Charles harbor
Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Nautical Chart On-Line Viewer
Chart #12224 - Chesapeake Bay, Cape Charles to Wolf Trap

Chesapeake Bay

Chesapeake Bay Geology and Sea Level Rise

Barrier Islands

Bay Coast Railroad

Space: The Final Frontier Starts at Wallops Island

Ports in Virginia

The Chesapeake Bay "Bolide" That Shaped the Groundwater in Southeastern Virginia

OCS Lease Sale 220 - as originally planned by Obama Administration
OCS Lease Sale 220 - as originally planned by Obama Administration
Source: Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, Virginia Lease Sale 220 Information

Links

northeastern tip of Accomack County
northeastern tip of Accomack County
Source: US Fish and Wildlife Service, Chincoteague NWR Alternative Transportation Study

References

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23. "Draft Environmental Assessment E-2/C-2 Field Carrier Landing Practice Operations at Emporia-Greensville Regional Airport, Greensville County, Virginia, and National Aeronautics and Space Administration Wallops Flight Facility, Accomack County, Virginia," Department of the Navy, September 2012, http://sites.wff.nasa.gov/code250/docs/Navy_FCLP_Ops.pdf; "Glitch forces Navy drone to abort carrier landing," The Virginian-Pilot, July 12, 2013, http://hamptonroads.com/node/683025; "States are competing to be the Silicon Valley of drones," Washington Post, August 19, 2013, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/the-switch/wp/2013/08/19/states-are-competing-to-be-the-silicon-valley-of-drones/ (last checked January 10, 2014)
24. "FAA to test drones at Wallops Island, NASA Langley," The Virginian-Pilot, December 31, 2013, http://hamptonroads.com/node/701635; "Virginia Tech selected as drone test site," The Roanoke Times, December 30, 2013, http://www.roanoke.com/news/article_ce2d7948-7178-11e3-bbad-0019bb30f31a.html; "Charlottesville becomes first city in U.S. to pass anti-drone resolution," The Daily Progress, February 5, 2013, http://www.dailyprogress.com/news/local/charlottesville-becomes-first-city-in-u-s-to-pass-anti/article_dff58902-6feb-11e2-9de8-0019bb30f31a.html; "Emergency responders focus on unmanned aircraft for search, public safety at state workshop," Virginia Tech Research, November 19, 2014, http://www.vtnews.vt.edu/articles/2014/11/111914-research-maapworkshop.html (last checked December 8, 2014)
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34. "Town's need for deeper channel illustrates funding process," US Army Corps on Engineers, November 28, 2012, http://www.nao.usace.army.mil/Media/NewsStories/tabid/3058/Article/6518/towns-need-for-deeper-channel-illustrates-funding-process.aspx (last checked June 12, 2013)
35. "Waters off Virginia, North Carolina out of offshore drilling plan," The Virginian-Pilot, March 5, 2016, http://pilotonline.com/news/local/environment/waters-off-virginia-north-carolina-out-of-offshore-drilling-plan/article_63b4d580-001e-5117-bc34-036f1c86343f.html (last checked March 15, 2016)

defining the eastern edge of the Eastern Shore requires deciding if the boundary is the mainland or the barrier islands...
defining the eastern edge of the Eastern Shore requires deciding if the boundary is the mainland or the barrier islands...
Source: National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Gateway to Astronaut Photography of Earth

Cape Charles is at the southern edge of the Eastern Shore
Cape Charles is at the southern edge of the Eastern Shore
Source: National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Gateway to Astronaut Photography of Earth

wetlands separate barrier islands from the Eastern Shore peninsula
wetlands separate barrier islands from the Eastern Shore peninsula
Source: NASA Scientific Visualization Studio, Wetlands of the Eastern shore and Fishermans Island


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