Transcripts

Scientists Fear Marsh's Disappearance

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:02
Okay, we're going to leave Seneca Creek State Park now and head Southeast on the Potomac River, past Alexandria to a spot not far from the Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge. It's a place called Dyke Marsh and it's one of the few marshes of its kind left along this stretch of the Potomac. But the National Park Service says the site is disappearing fast. Environment reporter Sabri Ben Achour pays a visit to find out why.

MR. SABRI BEN ACHOUR

00:00:27
A 20-minute drive from the busy streets of the district, it is a different universe.

MR. NED STONE

00:00:34
This surface here is extremely slippery. You can go right on your butt and into the water.

ACHOUR

00:00:39
Ned Stone is -- he's about to...

STONE

00:00:43
Whoa, what did I tell you?

ACHOUR

00:00:45
...fall into the mud.

STONE

00:00:46
You didn't do it, I did. Okay.

ACHOUR

00:00:48
Stone is Vice President of Friends of Dyke Marsh, which is where we are and Glinda Booth is president. They're taking a canoe out into the 50 acres of marsh.

MS. GLINDA BOOTH

00:00:57
Where you going to take us, Ned?

STONE

00:00:59
Well...

ACHOUR

00:00:59
The pair glides up a gut, a sinuous stretch of open water through a sea of reeds, looking down through the water, a forest of lily-like buds is waiting to burst from the surface.

BOOTH

00:01:10
This is called spatter dot. It has a yellow golf ball size flower. It's beautiful in the summer.

ACHOUR

00:01:18
The marsh gets its name from the dyke's farmers built to try and convert this marsh into farmland. It didn't work but other builders have been busy here.

STONE

00:01:25
On your right you'll see the beaver lodge, just behind those reeds, that big pile of sticks and stuff. Right there. I'm not going to go any further in here because there's not enough depth. Glinda, I'm going to reverse direction.

BOOTH

00:01:41
Look at the Great Blue Heron, see the long skinny neck and the long beak. This almost, to me, it looks like a prehistoric bird. In (word?) marsh, 300 species of plants, 6,000 arthropods, 38 species of fish, 16 reptiles, 14 amphibians and over 200 species of birds. See that osprey.

ACHOUR

00:02:06
He has, like, a sunfish in his...

STONE

00:02:07
He's got something large.

BOOTH

00:02:09
And he's going to go from that limb and eat it.

ACHOUR

00:02:11
In 1947, author Louis Halle described this place as the nearest thing to primeval wilderness in the immediate vicinity of this city. But 65 years later, the city has moved in.

BOOTH

00:02:21
There's the beltway. Lovely, huh?

ACHOUR

00:02:27
Cars on the Wilson Bridge rumble in the distance, planes rumble from above.

BOOTH

00:02:31
We have a real trash problem here, especially after storms because all the trash comes from the north, ends up settling. You can see bottles, see, there's plastic bottles. And we used to have a refrigerator right over there.

ACHOUR

00:02:45
A whole refrigerator that washed...

BOOTH

00:02:46
Yeah.

ACHOUR

00:02:47
...down the river?

BOOTH

00:02:47
Well, I don't know how it got there, but there was a refrigerator.

ACHOUR

00:02:50
But there are more troubling signs along the marsh's edge.

STONE

00:02:53
This tree fell over. The root ball is just sitting there as we go down here. This next group of trees you will see how the river is eroding their bases. And you can easily predict that they too will come down.

ACHOUR

00:03:07
This whole place is disappearing. Back on shore is Ron Litwin. He's a researcher with the U.S. Geological Survey.

MR. RON LITWIN

00:03:16
The current estimate for shore word erosion is probably six to eight feet a year. Since 2002 to the present, it's probably on the order of about an acre and a half of year.

ACHOUR

00:03:27
More than a football fields worth of marsh is swept away every year, tree by tree, reed by reed.

LITWIN

00:03:33
And the entire marsh itself that is left is now about 53 acres, roughly, out of an original 180 acres.

ACHOUR

00:03:41
He says that is because the equilibrium between sediment, vegetation and currents has been fundamentally disrupted.

LITWIN

00:03:47
Back in the early 1940s, there was a lot of metropolitan building going on. And so they were dredging sand and gravel out of this area to use for concrete.

ACHOUR

00:03:58
The dredging stopped in 1972, but it completely mined out shallows and a peninsula to the south that protected the marsh from storm surges. This site is now exposed to the full force of the river and hurricanes and storms. Soon it will be gone entirely.

MR. BRENT STEURY

00:04:15
This national park service site has a projected lifespan of about 40 years.

ACHOUR

00:04:19
Brent Steury is with the National Park Service.

STEURY

00:04:21
So what we have to do is -- and we know that it is feasible, is to restore this marsh.

ACHOUR

00:04:27
The park service is coming up with ideas and cost estimates for what it would take to rebuild the peninsula that sheltered this place. Out in the marsh, Glinda Booth and Ned Stone are paddling.

BOOTH

00:04:36
You know, it's just so peaceful. It's almost spiritual for me, a spiritual experience.

ACHOUR

00:04:43
This marsh is one of the last of its kind on this stretch of the Potomac. Without human intervention it will be transformed into a memory. I'm Sabri Ben-Achour.

SHEIR

00:05:08
We have photos and videos of Dyke Marsh as well as aerial shots showing how much of it has disappeared on our website, metroconnection.org. And we should mention that Sabri's story was informed by sources in WAMU's' Public Insight Network. It's a way for people to share stories and input with us. You can learn more at metroconnection.org/PIN. After the break, a new highway brings big changes to a Montgomery county neighborhood.

MR. KEN SCHMIDT

00:05:37
There's the old saying, not in my backyard, but here it is. Everyone's happier without a road in their backyard.

SHEIR

00:05:42
That story and more, coming up on "Metro Connection," here on WAMU 88.5.
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