Fletcher Cove friends fight to save public river access

Friends of Fletcher’s Cove confronts climate change and man-made river blockages in a bid to save the iconic DC recreation area.

WASHINGTON — Archaeologists believe humans may have been congregating on the banks of the Potomac River at Fletcher’s Cove for thousands of years.

But modern-day fishermen, kayakers and wildlife watchers say they come to the iconic site accessed via the odd bend of Canal Road NW through the C&O Canal National Historical Park for the same reasons the natives did; it is an ideal refuge in the Potomac, safe from the sometimes raging currents of the river, where countless adventures on the river can be launched.

Fletcher’s Cove is one of the few public access points for river recreation in the District, and the only safe and accessible launch site upstream above Georgetown, according to Friends of Fletcher’s Cove, an organization dedicated to saving the site. Despite centuries of history, the future of the Gulf is now in doubt, Friends said.

They point to the life-suffocating sediments and silt that have largely filled the bay in recent decades.

“This is a threat to one of America’s largest urban fisheries,” said Chris Wood, member of the organization’s steering committee and President and CEO of Trout Unlimited, a national conservation group.

Climate change and man-made barriers made of rock and heap dumped on riverbanks during the construction of major sewers in the 1960s were major problems, Wood explained during a spring tour of the riverbanks.

Its contents are changing historic river flows while climate change promises to increase the frequency and intensity of sediment-carrying floods, he said. The bay is already so silted up that low tide could leave the iconic red boat fleet chartered by Fletcher’s Boat House since the early 20th century stranded in the mud.

Two dredging attempts, since 1988, have not proven to be a permanent solution.

Mike Bailey, one of the legendary “River Rats” in the bay who has haunted the river and guided fishermen for decades, said the mud was suffocating life at the historic site.

“That’s my biggest concern, it’s sedimentation that will block access to what has been accessible for centuries, centuries, long before us,” Bailey explains as he leads a walking tour through the filled area, which has become forest. since its construction in 1964. “The river used to naturally cut and water the bay.”

Bailey said attempts to cut a new channel through the embankment during a dredging project in the 1980s proved unsuccessful.

“The water got very high and just dropped sediment and never flowed out. The river has lost its natural ability to drain the bay and we are slowly losing access to this resource.”

Fishermen like Wood and Bailey fear losing key access to nationally known hotspots for catching fish such as the Hickory Shad and Striped Bass that migrate from the Atlantic Ocean to spawn in the wild section of the Potomac River between Georgetown and the Great Falls.

In 2020, a rare short-nosed sturgeon was caught and released near the bay, sparking hopeful speculation that the species is starting to reappear.

RELATED: Rare short-nosed sturgeon caught in the Potomac River excites biologists and fishermen

The Cove is a mecca for a colorful community of fishermen and sailors who congregate at the boathouse before dawn, especially in spring when fish spawning is in progress.

Kayaks, cyclists, and hikers visiting C&O Canal National Historical Park also stop at the boat shed, which has been selling drinks and snacks to all comers for decades. Everyone should be worried about the future of the Cove, said Wood.

“Our job as a nation is to help make these natural systems more resilient to the impacts of climate change,” said Wood.

RELATED: Yes, you can swim in the Potomac River, but will you and should you?

At the season’s opening event in April, DC’s Del Elanor Holmes Norton (D) pledged to direct more funds to institutions such as the National Park Service, which manages the bay as part of the C&O Canal National Historical Park.

“Fletcher’s Cove offers a unique haven for residents of the District of Columbia and the National Capital Territory to enjoy fishing, boating, wildlife watching, and many other forms of outdoor recreation,” says Norton. “Saving Fletcher Bay is one of my biggest priorities.”

The National Park Service is committed to another round of dredging and repairs for better public access to the area, according to John Noel, deputy superintendent of C&O Canal National Historic Park.

“We’re trying to find funding now to remove some of the sediment we see behind us, but also to learn to understand river impacts and how we can develop long-term solutions,” Noel said.

The solution will most likely involve moving some of the stockpile upstream in an effort to restore natural flow, according to Friends of Fletcher’s Cove members who admit such a project would be much more expensive than dredging. One recent proposal estimates a limited dredging cost of $120,000.

Any large-scale engineering solution must be resilient to the impacts of climate change, according to Jeff Seltzer of the DC Department of Energy and Environment, who will be a partner on any project in the bay.

Seltzer says climate change outlook “continues” [him] wake up at night.”

Any future projects will require collaboration between the National Park Service, the US Army Corps of Engineers and DC DOEE.

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