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Scientists Fear Marsh's Disappearance

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Glenda Booth is president of Friends of Dyke Marsh.
Sabri Ben-Achour
Glenda Booth is president of Friends of Dyke Marsh.

A 20-minute drive south of Washington, D.C. lives Dyke Marsh, one of the few tidal wetlands left in the region. In 1947, author Louis Halle described it as "the nearest thing to primeval wilderness in the immediate vicinity of the city." But during the 1950s and 60s, sand and gravel mining at the marsh destabilized its currents and geology, and set in motion its gradual destruction.

The marsh, which took hundreds of years to develop, is home to hundreds of species of birds, as well as turtles and beavers, and has shrunk by 55 percent in a matter of decades. One of the main reasons for its devastation is the city's emergence. The Beltway is nearby, and cars on the Wilson Bridge rumble in the distance.

"We have a real trash problem here, especially after storms because all the trash comes from the north, ends up settling," says Glenda Booth, president of Friends of Dyke Marsh. "You can see bottles... and we used to have a refrigerator there. These things float in... there are two high tides every day, and in comes the trash."

But there are even more troubling signs along the marsh's edge, where trees have fallen over due to erosion.

"In terms of feet of shoreline per year, the current estimate for shoreward erosion is probably 6 to 8 feet a year," says Ron Litwin, a researcher with the U.S. Geological Survey. "Since 2002 to the present, it's an acre and a half a year."

More than a football field's worth of marsh is swept away every year, tree-by-tree, reed-by-reed.

"Now the entire marsh is 53 acres out of an original 183 acres," says Litwin.

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

"Back in the early 1940s, there was a lot of building going on, so they were dredging sand and gravel out of this area for concrete," he says.

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. Soon, it'll be gone entirely. Litwan says the site has a projected lifespan of about 40 years.

Brent Stuery, with the National Park Service, says the goal now is to restore the marsh. NPS is coming up with ideas and cost estimates for how much it would cost to rebuild the peninsula that sheltered this place.

Back on the marsh Booth and Ned Stone, vice president of Friends of Dyke Marsh, are paddling and enjoying the serenity.

"It is so peaceful," says Booth. "It's almost spiritual for me. A spiritual experience."

It may be peaceful and spiritual for now, but unless action is taken soon, this marsh -- one of the last of its kind in this stretch of the Potomac -- will be transformed into a memory.


We learned about the subject of this story through WAMU's Public Insight Network. Learn more about the Public Insight Network.

[Music: "I've Got Dreams To Remember" by Delbert McClinton from The Best of Delbert McClinton]

Photos: Dyke Marsh

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