WASHINGTON — Archaeologists believe humans may have been gathering on the banks of the Potomac River at Fletcher’s Cove for thousands of years.
But modern fishermen, kayakers and wildlife watchers say they come to the iconic spot accessed by an awkward turn off Canal Road NW through the C&O Canal National Historical Park for the same reason natives did; it’s an ideal protected spot on the Potomac safe from the river’s sometimes raging currents, 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 launching spot in the upper river above Georgetown, according to Friends of Fletcher's Cove, an organization dedicated to saving the site. Despite centuries of history, the future of the Cove is now in doubt, the Friends say.
They point to life-choking sediment and mud that have largely filled in the cove in recent decades.
“This is a threat to one of the greatest urban fisheries in America,” said Chris Wood, a member of the organization’s steering committee and the President and CEO of Trout Unlimited, a national conservation group.
Climate change and a man-made obstruction made of rock and fill dumped at the river’s edge during construction of a major sewer line in the 1960s are the primary problems, Wood explained during a springtime tour of the river bank.
The fill changed the historic flow of the river while climate change promises to increase the frequency and intensity of floods bringing loads of sediment in, he said. Already the cove is so badly silted in, that low tides can leave the iconic fleet of red skiffs rented by Fletcher’s Boat House since the early 20th century stranded in mud.
Two attempts at dredging, dating back to 1988, have not proved to be a permanent solution.
Mike Bailey, one of the legendary “River Rats” of the cove who has haunted the river and guided fishermen for decades, says the mud is choking the life out of the historic site.
“That's my biggest concern, is the sedimentation that's going to choke off access to what has been accessible for centuries, centuries, way before us,” Bailey explained as he led a tour walking across the filled-in area, which has become a woodland since it’s construction in 1964. “The river used to naturally cut through and flush the cove out."
Bailey said an attempt at cutting a new channel through the fill during a dredging project in the 1980s proved to be a failure.
“The water gets really high and it just drops the sediment and it never flushes out," Wood said. "The river has lost its natural ability to flush out the cove and we are slowly losing access to this resource."
Fishermen like Wood and Bailey fear losing the prime access to a nationally-known hotspot for harvesting runs of fish like Hickory Shad and Striped Bass that migrate from the Atlantic Ocean to spawn in the wild part of the Potomac River between Georgetown and Great Falls.
In 2020, a rare shortnose sturgeon was caught and released near the cove, sparking hopeful speculation that the species is beginning a comeback.
The Cove is a mecca for a colorful community of fishermen and boaters who gather at the boathouse before dawn, particularly in the springtime when the fish spawning runs are on.
Kayakers, cyclists and walkers visiting the C&O Canal National Historic Park also stop at the boathouse, which has continuously sold refreshments and snacks to all comers for decades. All should be concerned about the future of the Cove, Wood says.
“Our job as a nation is to help to make these natural systems more resilient to the effects of a changing climate,” Wood said.
At a season kick-off event in April, D.C. Del. Elanor Holmes Norton (D) promised to steer more funding to agencies like the National Park Service, which administers the cove 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 Region to enjoy fishing, boating, wildlife watching, and many other forms of outdoor recreation,” Norton said. "Saving Fletcher’s Cove is one of my biggest priorities."
The National Park Service is committed to another round of dredging and improvements for better public access to the area, according to John Noel, deputy superintendent of the C&O Canal National Historic Park.
“We’re trying to find funding now to remove some of the sediment that we see behind us, but also to study to understand the impacts of the river and how we might develop a long-term solution,” Noel said.
The solution is likely to involve removing some of the fill upstream of the cove in an attempt to restore natural flows, according to Friends of Fletcher’s Cove members who acknowledge such a project will be much more expensive than dredging. One recent proposal estimated the cost of limited dredging at $120,000.
Any large-scale engineering solution will have to withstand the effects of climate change, according to Jeff Seltzer of D.C.’s Department of Energy and Environment, which would be a partner in any project in the cove.
Seltzer said the prospect of climate change “keeps [him] up at night.”
Any future project would require collaboration between the National Park Service, the US Army Corps of Engineers and DC DOEE.
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