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Tiny Dyke Marsh Gets New Lease On Life On The Potomac

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Woodrow Wilson Bridge is visible beyond tiny Dyke Marsh in Virginia.
Jonathan Wilson
Woodrow Wilson Bridge is visible beyond tiny Dyke Marsh in Virginia.
Photo by Kerry Wixted: http://www.flickr.com/photos/kwixted0/4872312562
River bulrush is currently an endangered species in Virginia.

We first visited Dyke Marsh more than a year ago. It's one of the last freshwater tidal wetlands on the Upper Potomac River. Unfortunately, Dyke Marsh has been eroding for decades, and without major restoration work, environmental advocates say the wetland is on track to disappear in just a few decades.

But as Environment Reporter Jonathan Wilson found out, the future of Dyke Marsh is suddenly looking a little less muddy.

A mistreated Virginia treasure

Brent Steury is trudging through frozen winter grass along the banks of a path known as the Haul Road. Occasionally, he leans precariously over the marsh to take a closer look at the reedy plants sticking up from the mud.

He's looking for something called River Bulrush — a type of sedge rare enough to be on the list of endangered species in Virginia. Dyke Marsh is one of the only places in the state where it grows.

"See that one that coming up and is broken half way up and hanging down?" he says, pointing to a triangular stalk. "That's a river bulrush."

Steury says it's likely that River Bulrush was much more plentiful here before Dyke Marsh started shrinking. The path we're on, the Haul Road, is part of that story.

The road got its name because it was built in the 1930s, when construction companies needed a way to haul the sand and gravel they were dredging out of the bottom of the Potomac.

The dredging took its toll on the marsh.

"If you squint your eyes and look over there towards I-495," Steury says, pointing to the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, "You can see a white buoy out in the middle of the river. That's where the edge of the marsh used to be, you can see where it is today."

Dyke Marsh once covered several hundred acres. The dredging, and the erosion that's taken place since it stopped in the 1970's, has shrunk the marsh by more than half.

A recent study by the U.S. Geological Survey showed dredgers compounded the problem when they dug away a thumb shaped promontory about 10 acres in size — a finger of land that once protected the wetland from damaging storm waves.

"When they mined it they had to create these deep channel scars all along the edge of the marsh so the barges could get in to ship the material out," he says. "So now the wave energy can come right up to the very edge of the marsh before the waves crest and break and release all their energy on the marsh."

And so at this time last year, scientists finally had a handle on all the reasons why nearly two acres of the marsh were disappearing each year and why the marsh was particularly vulnerable to north-tracking storms, storms like Hurricanes Sandy and Isabel.

The Dyke Marsh is located south of Alexandria.

Assistance where none was expected

But Glenda Booth, president of the non-profit Friends of Dyke Marsh, had little reason to believe that the millions of dollars in federal assistance needed to restore the marsh were likely to come through.

"Given what's going on the Congress, and the National Park services' needs nationwide, finding funds for restoring Dyke Marsh was going to be very challenging," Booth says.

Part of Brent Steury's job was applying for a chunk of the money the Department of the Interior had available for restoration efforts after Hurricane Sandy.

Steury is a soft-spoken government biologist - about as even-keeled as you would expect of someone who studies the life cycles of aquatic plants and animals.

But as he describes finding out that his grant application was successful this fall, he gets a little breathless.

"They wanted me to write the press release and I said, 'I don't even know how much money we're getting yet. How much are we getting?' and the person who was writing the national press release said, you're getting the full amount: $24.9 million,'" he recalls. "Wow."

Right now the Park Service is in the midst of studying exactly how the money will be used, but rebuilding the promontory section of the wetland will certainly be key.

Steury says he'll likely have to write another grant application for funding to deal with all the invasive vine species suffocating the swamp forest on the other side of the Haul Road...but for now, he can get some solace from the fact that his arguments for saving Dyke Marsh are getting the attention he always thought they deserved.

"We know how fast it's going away, we know why it's disappearing. Look, Dyke Marsh is going to be gone in 30 years, unless somebody takes some action," Steury says.

And now, thanks to a little hard work and a lot of hard science, someone is.

If you've got an environment story you think we should be covering in 2014, we'd love to hear your suggestions. You can reach us at metro@wamu.org or on Twitter — our handle is @wamumetro.

[Music: "Halcyon Days" by Mokhov from Halcyon Days]


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