Fairfax Stone State Park, near Davis, West Virginia, has no boating, no hiking, and no camping. It does not even have a restroom. In fact, it is a diminutive 4-acre park. However, it has immense importance to the Potomac River and the history of the region.
A spring, marked by an organized pile of mossy rocks, is the beginning of the North Branch of the Potomac River. A mere 383 miles downriver, that trickle transforms into the 11-mile wide mouth of the Potomac River, spilling into the Chesapeake Bay.
Before the American Revolution, it was the tradition that English kings would reward loyal friends with large parcels of land in the territories. A plaque on a six-ton rock at the entrance of the park commemorates the western boundary of land granted to Lord Fairfax by King Charles II of England in 1746.
Photo by West Virginia State Parks
His bounty was, “bounded by and within the heads of the Rivers Rappahannock and Patawomecke”. Known as Fairfax Stone, it is one of the oldest markers in the United States. This plot of land has been part of many boundary disputes.
There may not be many amenities in this charming park, but it is a good reminder that even the largest rivers start as a trickle.
Kayakers paddle down the Potomac River from the Brunswick Family Campground boat ramp.
For many families, the Brunswick Family Campground in Brunswick, Maryland is a summertime tradition. Whether you are a hiker, biker, kayaker, history buff, or train enthusiast, there is something for everyone at this campground along the C&O Canal Park.
This campground is known for two things: access to the river and trains. Campers launch from the boat ramp for a paddle down the Potomac River. Organize boat rentals and transportation with camp staff. Some campers park their beach chair in the shallow waters along the edge to cool-off on a hot day.
Train enthusiasts can enjoy the trains that come rumbling down the tracks along the campground throughout the day. Don’t forget your earplugs for the nighttime rumbles! Learn more about the town’s rich transportation history at the Brunswick Heritage Museum.
Plan to spend a few days exploring the area. The historical powerhouses, Harpers Ferry National Park, Antietam National Park, and Monocacy National Battlefield are all an easy drive from the campground.
One of the perks of staying at a campground managed by River & Trail Outfitters is that many of their boating trips launch directly from the boat ramp at the campground. They offer a variety of adventures along the Potomac River, including an upcoming Sunset Float and Moonrise Paddle Tour on July 21. We would like to thank River & Trail Outfitters for their help as “river watchers” for ICPRB’s weekly newsletter, River Watch.
Going out on the Potomac River this weekend? Show us how much you love the Potomac by using #PotomacLove in your social media posts!
In celebration of the beginning of summer, this week’s About the Basin covers an internationally known pile of rocks that honors the summer solstice. No, not Stonehenge, but the lesser known -henge this side of the pond: Foamhenge.
At Foamhenge, the life-size blocks of foam are chiseled, painted, and arranged to be an exact replica of the slightly-more-famous prehistoric wonder of the world, Stonehenge, in Wiltshire, England. However, this one is closer to home.
Located at Cox Farms, Foamhenge is less than an hour’s drive from the D.C. Metro Area. This homage to Stonehenge is open to the public on Saturdays (12:00-2:00pm) during the summer and spring seasons. Admission to this quintessential American roadside attraction is free but only accessible via a shuttle provided by the farm. Part of the weekly event called “Smokin’ Saturdays”, farm activities also include food, feeding farm animals, produce, and live music. Over-sized games of Yahtzee, Jenga, Connect 4, and Checkers are also available for entertaining the whole family. This weekend, check out Foamhenge for a European-style staycation and marvel at the wonders that the Potomac basin have to offer right here at home.
The waters of the Potomac are again receding from flood levels after several late-May and June storm systems, although damage (and maybe some benefits) will continue for some time. The flooding in the upper Potomac basin brought large amounts of sediment and nutrients into the river that can provide the food needed for algae blooms later this summer. The flows, which included numerous stormwater and sewer backups, also can cause some short-term spikes in bacterial levels. These conditions can stress aquatic animals and plants, as well as restricting recreational use. Roads and other infrastructure also sustained damage in the upper basin and Shenandoah watershed.
As flood waters move downriver, they affect salinity and oxygen levels in the tidal river, stressing aquatic communities. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission are concerned about effects on oyster populations near the Route 301 Bridge that crosses the Potomac near Colonial Beach, Va. Oyster restoration efforts are being stressed by the lower salinity levels caused by the massive freshwater input from upstream, as well as how these flows may cause stratification between the fresh water moving downriver on the surface and the heavier, saltier water moving upstream on the tide. This stratification can deplete oxygen levels near the bottom, and future algae blooms that die and fall to the bottom to decompose (oxygen is used in decomposition) will intensify the problem for the oysters, which need both salty water and oxygen. These conditions can favor the growth of plants that like freshwater at the expense of plants that prefer saltier water. This interaction highlights the complex ecology of the Potomac River, where salt and oxygen levels can change rapidly in response to flow and weather conditions. These effects also influence the growth of aquatic plants (see related article), fish spawning runs, and other ecological aspects.
While these episodes of deluges and dry weather can’t necessarily be blamed on climate change, ICPRB research using climate change models to predict future water availability found that many of the models did agree that weather events in the basin would become more extreme. These weather events come at a time when basin water quality is improving in many aspects, but is still fragile enough for weather patterns to exert a powerful effect.
The Potomac River: A Story of Love, Loss, and Redemption
During one of the first warm days of the year, a group of people gathered in the heart of the District of Columbia. Forgoing the sun and warmth, they sat in a conference room at the Smithsonian Institution’s S. Dillon Ripley Center to learn about the backdrop to the nation’s capital and the source of our drinking water: the Potomac River.
Just like the plot of a romantic novel, the visitors learned of the (ecologically) rich and beautiful Potomac as seen by the original inhabitants and the first European explorers. They learned of the struggles the Potomac experienced due to neglect, pollution, and overharvest. Finally, our river heroine sees hope in the future and a revived love from the community.
“Washingtonians are paying attention to the fact that we are a river city in a way they haven’t in the past,” exclaimed Rebecca Roberts, program coordinator for the Smithsonian Associates, the event organizer. Roberts said it was the newly renewed love affair with the river that was the inspiration for the event, titled, “The Potomac: Rolling Through DC’s History and Heart.”
Watery Highway to the West
The morning started out with a look through the river’s storied human history with a presentation by author and historian Garrett Peck. He let us in on a secret: contrary to popular belief, the city of Washington, D.C. was not built on a swamp. Its residents will need to blame the humidity on something else from now on.
According to Peck, the Potomac River was thought by the English explorer Captain John Smith, to be a passageway to the Pacific Ocean. He found it teeming with life. Indigenous peoples lived along the river, relying on its abundant aquatic life for sustenance throughout the year. Over a century later, George Washington also saw the river as a watery highway to the west, envisioning a system of canals that could easily move people and goods up and down the river. Alas, the canal system was beat out by the cheaper and more efficient railroad system and the rest, as they say, is history.
Peck went onto explain that even with the failed canal system, the river was still an important mode of transportation. The Alexandria port was once the 5th busiest port on the east coast. There were several more ports in the Washington, D.C. area that could accommodate deep, ocean-going vessels. Tobacco farms and other anthropogenic activities upstream have since filled these ports with so much sediment that now, during low tide, you are more likely to walk on them than to navigate a boat.
Callan Bentley, assistant professor of geology at Northern Virginia Community College, walked the audience through the geological mega-history of the area. The six different geological regions in the Potomac River basin each tell their own story. A colorful GIF featuring the six regions can be found on Bentley’s Twitter feed. A billion years ago, the Potomac River basin was part of a pre-Pangea supercontinent known as Rodinia. The orogeny (the technical term for tectonic plate action) of the continents forming, tearing apart, smashing together again to create Pangea, then breaking apart once more created the mountain ranges in the west of the basin.
The oldest geologic formation in the basin is Old Rag Mountain in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The Old Rag Granite that this mountain sits upon was crystallized during the formation of the supercontinent Rodinia.
The love affair with the Potomac River celebrated by John Smith, George Washington and so many others that lived along its shores took its toll on the river itself. Sediment, pollutants, sewage, harvesting and damming decreased aquatic animals and plants, making the river a toxic brew in places.
A River Renewed
Just as many storybook romances contain a tale of struggle and loss before a victorious ending, so too, did the people of the Potomac River basin. A renewed outcry from the basin’s residents lead to new legislation, new technology and infrastructure that reduced sewage output, and efforts across the basin lead to a cleaner Potomac river. Organizations like the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin worked tirelessly for a cleaner, healthier river.
The river’s progress has been followed closely by Chris Jones of George Mason University (GMU), a speaker at the Smithsonian Associate’s event. Since 1984, scientists at GMU have been monitoring the water quality and biological communities in Gunston Cove, an embayment of the tidal freshwater Potomac River. At the event, Jones spoke of improved water clarity and the return of submerged aquatic vegetation, and general ecosystem recovery over the last couple decades. This trend is associated with a reduction in phosphorous loading due to process changes in the wastewater treatment plant located along the shores of the bay.
A similar recovery has been seen upriver of Gunston Cove, claimed Claire Buchanan, Aquatic Biologist at the Interstate Commission of the Potomac River Basin, another speaker at the event. Her presentation started with an explanation of the abundance of fish and wildlife and the many deepwater ports along the river in the years before sediment and pollutants muddied the waters. Oysters, mussels, and underwater grasses abounded. Although progress has been made, that abundance of life has not returned and probably never will. Once an ecological regime shift passes a critical threshold, it is very difficult to return to the previous status.
The river may not return to the golden era of abundance, but many are working towards a cleaner future. The final speaker at the event was Carlton Ray of DC Water, the water utility that provides drinking water to D.C. residents and provides wholesale wastewater treatment services to 2.1 million people in the Washington Metro Area. As part of the utility’s Clean Rivers Project, the combined sewer overflows, that have heavily polluted the Anacostia and Potomac rivers in the past, will decrease by 98% by the year 2023. The first phase of the project, the Anacostia River Tunnel Project, came online March 2018. The second phase, the Potomac River Tunnel Project, is underway. Due to projects like these and many others, the Anacostia River, once known as the Forgotten River, is no longer left behind. Its resurgence was noted in a recent WAMU article.
Changes are being made. Fish are returning, dissolved oxygen is improving, and sewage is decreasing. There are even discussions of allowing people to swim in the waters in the next few years. We are on our way to a new era in clean water, a new regime. There is hope for the river still.
Record Growth for Aquatic Grasses in the Bay. The Potomac, while Healthy, had Setbacks.
An estimated 104,843 acres of underwater grasses were mapped in the Chesapeake Bay and its tidal tributaries in 2017, according to the Chesapeake Bay Program. It is the highest total amount ever recorded and the first time that total abundance has surpassed 100,000 acres since monitoring began. It was the third consecutive year of record-setting growth.
The Bay total is more than 14,000 acres greater than the 2017 restoration target, and 57 percent of the ultimate restoration goal under the Chesapeake Bay Program. The total increased by five percent from 2016 to 2017.
Changes in weather and runoff
The increases have resulted both from the weather conducive to plant growth and from reductions in nutrient loadings both from reduced precipitation and the success of efforts under the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL). Both modeling and monitoring results during the past several years have documented decreases in nutrients that suggest that the many efforts to reduce nutrients and sediment under the Bay TMDL are bearing fruit. Reducing nutrients is a key factor in promoting aquatic plants, which like their land-based cousins, require sunlight to grow. Excess nutrients feed algal blooms that decrease water clarity and the sunlight available to the plants. In addition, some algae attach to plants and further block sunlight. In a positive feedback cycle, as plants become established, they consume nutrients in the water and trap sediment and thereby increase water clarity.
Different species of plants populate the bay watershed, and the kinds of plants found in a particular area are related to the saltiness of the water. There are several “salinity zones” in the bay with boundaries that move somewhat seasonally and with rainfall. The Bay Program examined abundance by salinity zone. They noted that the tidal freshwater area grew during 2017, achieving 96.5 percent of the zone goal. Slightly salty waters (oligohaline) fell slightly, moderately salty waters (mesohaline) rose somewhat, achieving 51 percent of the goal, with the bay’s very salty waters (polyhaline) also registering an increase.
Closer to Home
While this is great news overall, the Potomac watershed was hardly mentioned in press releases from the Bay Program or Maryland. The Potomac didn’t fare as well as some other regions of the bay, although the good news is that areas of the watershed were already doing quite well.
The Anacostia River in the District of Columbia, part of the Potomac’s tidal freshwater region, held about 13 acres of plants in 2017, up almost 60 percent from the previous year. No plants were found upstream in the Maryland portion of the Anacostia, which has not held plants since monitoring began and has no coverage goal under the Bay Program. The Potomac River in the District decreased slightly in 2017 but still meets its plant goal. The Maryland portion of the tidal freshwater Potomac doubled its acreage from last year and is close to meeting its goal. The Virginia side of the river decreased slightly from 2016 but is already meeting its goal.
A little further downstream, Piscataway and Mattawoman creeks continue to hold rich beds of aquatic plants, and Mattawoman Creek, despite a slight decline, is not far from its goal. Piscataway remains at about 50 percent of its goal. Piscataway Creek was one of the first tidal Potomac tributaries to hold extensive hydrilla beds in the 1980s, but plant populations have wildly fluctuated. Its preliminary 2017 acreage was about 347 acres. It held about 523 acres in 2010, declined, hit 541 acres in 2015, and has declined again. In general, aquatic plant communities experience boom-and-bust cycles, although not as extreme a what is seen in Piscataway Bay.
The Potomac’s slightly salty (oligohaline) waters, which run from downstream of the Occoquan area to the Route 301 Bridge, experienced strong decreases of plants. Bob Orth, the Virginia Institute of Marine Science professor who conducts the annual bay surveys, noted that the extended dry period could be a major reason for the die-off. Salt-tolerant freshwater plants have been growing in the sector, and more than a year of drought conditions (preceding the frequent rain events of spring 2018) have increased the salinity and stressed the plants.
The Potomac’s moderately salty (mesohaline) waters fared well, as did many of these areas in the bay. Expansion of eelgrass beds in these regions have grown during the last several seasons.
The Potomac River, with more than 100 miles of tidal river will usually show a wider range of conditions because of its multiple habitats.
Overall, “2017 was quite an exciting year for the survey. First, we exceeded 100,000 acres for the first time ever in the survey, and now have three successive years of record high numbers. Second, we noted submerged aquatic vegetation in two areas of the bay that had not seen any since 1972 (in front of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science Laboratory in Solomons, Md., and in the upper Choptank near Mumfort Island, Va.). Hopefully, this trend will continue in 2018.” Orth said.
A large crowd gathered in Woodbridge, Va., on April 12, a rare warm spring day, to celebrate the opening of George Mason University’s Potomac Science Center on Belmont Bay. The new 50,000-square-foot complex will house the Potomac Environmental Research and Education Center (PEREC), a unit of the university devoted to environmental research on the Potomac and aspects of aquatic science, and include facilities for general environmental science and programs for teaching science to visiting area school groups. The facility meets LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Silver certification standards.
The Potomac Science Center’s unique focus on the river makes it a valuable new asset for the basin. The university began that focus decades ago with continuing research on aspects of Belmont Bay and the Potomac and Occoquan rivers, and an overall emphasis on tidal freshwater habitats. Its most comprehensive effort is an ongoing study of the ecology of nearby Gunston Cove. Water quality, wildlife, and plant data have been collected at the cove for more than 30 years.
The center has been a dream of PEREC Director Prof. R. Christian Jones for many years, and the new facility, with its beautiful waterfront location, modern building with gleaming new labs and class spaces is impressive. The new facility will invite partnerships with other institutions of all types, and make PEREC a leader in increasing understanding of the ecology of the tidal Potomac River.
PEREC’s Prof. Cindy Smith, the K-12 Education and Outreach Director, led a group through the facility, highlighting both the laboratories with spectrometers and chromatographs, as well as classrooms and simpler tools that have helped her host area school groups in environmental education programs. Since 2009, PEREC has delivered watershed education to more than 40,000 Prince William County and 25,000 Fairfax County school students. The new center will help PEREC to provide even more opportunities for area schools, Smith noted.
The next phase of development will include an enlarged pier providing deepwater access for research boats and as a platform for visiting school students to conduct experiments. The ICPRB congratulates our colleagues at PEREC and welcomes these new resources aimed at protecting and improving the Potomac.
ICPRB joins the Cleanup Effort
In the Potomac river basin, the month of April is known for light rain, spring flowers, and picking up trash. So. Much. Trash. More than 340,000 pounds of it.
The Alice Ferguson Foundation has organized the Potomac Watershed Cleanup every April for the past three decades. Out of interest and need, the original one-day event has turned into a month-long lineup of river cleanups of all shapes and sizes throughout the watershed.
This past April, 9,700 people participated in the cleanup events, picking up all kinds of trash, including tires, plastic bags, and the recent poster-child of harmful litter, plastic straws.
The Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin organized two events during the month of April. One in Frederick, Md. and one in Herndon, Va. There were 26 bags of trash picked up by 18 volunteers of all ages. We would like to thank those who joined ICPRB and other organizations to clean our streams and rivers!
You don’t have to wait until next April to cleanup the river. Picking up trash is an easy way to protect our drinking water. Much of the trash along the road ends up in storm drains which can flow directly into your local river or stream. Why not take it a step further and go plogging? This is a new trend that combines jogging and trash pickup.
During the summer months, ICPRB publishes a weekly column, About the Basin, that introduces readers to fun and interesting places around the Potomac River basin. In case you missed it (ICYMI), a recent article about the only outdoor monument to presidential bathing, George Washington’s Bathtub, really caught the public’s attention!
Follow us on Facebook and Twitter to catch future editions of About the Basin.
This past Valentine’s Day we saw a lot of love from ICPRB Commissioners and staff when they participated in a #PotomacLove event across social media declaring why they love the river. Watch their stories in the video above. Then post your own #PotomacLove story on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.
Looking for up-to-date information on the Potomac River basin? Like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and sign up for our Newsletter!
If you take MD-355 north out of Washington, D.C., you will drive through miles of urban and suburban landscape. Eventually, the houses and shops will turn into bucolic fields and forests. The gateway to this beautiful part of rural Maryland is Little Bennett Regional Park in Clarksburg, Md. The south side of the park is lined by housing developments named for the farms that once stood there, but pass through the park and Maryland becomes agricultural fields and small towns.
Just as it is the gateway from urban to rural, Little Bennett also inhabits the ambiguous space between the past and the present. The park boasts 14 historic sites and 25 miles of forested hiking trails, but it also has a golf course, playgrounds, and more-than-adequate facilities for both glampers and campers. At 3,700 acres, there is a lot to do and see at Little Bennett.
Eastern bluebirds and timberdoodles are just some of the notable wildlife in the park. If you see a large mound of dirt, admire the handiwork from afar but do not touch it. Those mounds are home to Allegheny mound-builder ants. They can become aggressive if disturbed.
The park’s historic sites celebrate the agricultural and small-scale industries that covered Montgomery County, Maryland in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. One of the 14 historic sites is a one-room schoolhouse built in 1893 and restored to its original appearance in the 1920s. Join park staff on the first Sunday of the month for a guided tour.
George Washington’s Bathtub in Berkeley Springs, West Virginia is touted as the “only outdoor monument to presidential bathing.” However, (spoiler alert!) Washington never actually used the tub. The stone “bathtub” was built to symbolize the bathing conditions of the 1700’s. In his quest for better health, Washington visited the hot springs on many occasions.
It is unclear how effective the the hot springs were. In a letter from 1761, Washington said, “I think my fevers are a good deal abated, though my pains grow rather worse, and my sleep equally disturbed.” Washington enjoyed the hot springs frequently, despite his disturbed sleep. He even bought a property close by in the appropriately named town of “Bath”. The town continues to be a popular destination for a spa retreat.
At less than 5 acres, the stone structure in the shape of a bath is located in one of the smallest parks in the West Virginia State Park system. Nonetheless, the park boasts a museum, a Roman bathhouse with spa services, and a public drinking fountain. People come from miles around to fill jugs with the natural spring water.
There is a yearly celebration of the unusual monument, known as George Washington’s Bathtub Celebration, held in mid-March. But if you can’t wait that long to explore this roadside attraction, check out the most famous (and only) presidential bathing monument this weekend for the monthly Art in the Park at Berkeley Springs Park on Sunday. You can support local artists while you explore the curious sites the Potomac watershed has to offer.
Do you know a spot in the Potomac watershed that is wacky, curious, or just a bit odd? Let us know by emailing email@example.com and it may be featured in a future Peculiar Potomac Edition of About the Basin.
About the Basin has featured many luxurious camping spots; large, resort-style houses in state parks (read: Westmoreland State Park) and glamping with all the amenities (read: Cacapon State Park). The park in this About the Basin offers a different take on camping. A 4WD car is recommended, the most luxurious items you will find are a picnic table and a fire ring, and park staff offer A LOT of advice on bears. It is basic, bare-bones, rustic camping. It is Green Ridge State Park in Flinstone, Md.
Although camping amenities may be limited, the options for entertainment are not. As the largest contiguous block of public land, Green Ridge has a lot to offer. There is hunting, fishing, and a shooting range for the sportsmen among us. The 50+ miles of hiking provide many camping opportunities for avid backcountry backpackers. The hiking trails seem limitless, as many connect with Buchanan State Forest and the Chesapeake and Ohio National Historic Park Trails. A 12-mile mountain bike trail, geocaching, and paddling are also an option for recreation. There is even a canoe campsite available on a first-come, first-served basis. Some of these activities require permits, so make sure to stop by the visitor’s center before hitting the trails. A detailed map is available (and recommended, since cell service is spotty).
All of this is only a 2-hour drive from the DC Metro area. If you are looking for a rustic weekend away, Green Ridge State Park is where it’s at.
Westmoreland State Park is located along the shores of the Potomac River in Montross, Virginia. The park was one of six Virginia State Parks that opened in 1936 through the Civilian Conservation Corp program. Many of the park’s roads and trails were built by hand during that time.
Westmoreland is about a 2-hour trip south of Washington, D.C., and it is worth the drive. But don’t just go for a day, stay for a night or two. Better yet, stay for three nights. That is the only way to experience all this park has to offer.
Grab a Discovery Pack filled with identification guides and sieves from the visitor’s center and head down to the beach to try your luck at dinosaur hunting. Fossilized shark teeth are a common treasure found on Westmoreland beaches.
But that’s just day one. After you’ve gathered up all your shark teeth, join park staff for a variety of classes for the young and the young at heart. A fossil hike along the beach provides an introduction to the ancient history of the Potomac River. A program on crabbing will introduce you to crabbing techniques used by watermen on the Potomac. They also offer classes on ice cream making, sharks tooth necklace making and more. Join them for their next Fossil Hike on May 26. The park also participates in Clean the Bay Day on June 2 with a large, organized cleaning effort of the park and its beaches (or find a location closer to home to join Clean the Bay Day efforts).
Exhausted from your day of dinosaur chasing? The park offers everything from basic tent camping to luxurious cabin glamping and everything in between. Did you bring the in-laws, the grandkids, and all of their friends? The waterfront Potomac River Retreat sleeps 16 with 5-bedrooms and 5-baths.
There is something for everyone at Westmoreland State Park. When you go, share photos on social media with #PotomacLove and show us how you are enjoying the river this summer!
Strong regional planning has provided the metropolitan Washington Area with a reliable supply of drinking water for decades. Regional growth and climate issues spurred an important study that examines how the region might supplement water supplies for the future of the region. The report assesses a range of new management protocols, storage, and technology.
The Commissioners of the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin (ICPRB) recently passed a resolution commending the Washington Metropolitan Area Water Supply Alternatives Study, and encouraging area stakeholders and water managers to work together to implement the study’s recommendations.
The study, performed by the ICPRB Section for Cooperative Water Supply Operations on the Potomac (CO-OP), assesses a range of solutions to increase the capacity of the region’s water supply, which may not meet unrestricted demands under all conditions by 2040. The study provides information on alternatives to ensure reliable drinking water supplies over a planning horizon extending to 2085. Alternatives were evaluated by their abilities to maintain a reliable water supply that includes growing metropolitan area water demand, decreasing river flows due to upstream use, and the potential impacts of climate change.
“The Commission encourages regional and federal stakeholders, planners and policymakers to review the report’s findings and strongly consider implementation of recommended options. The Commission is committed to continuing its role in facilitation of this process between the multiple stakeholders where it has the authority, resources and relevant expertise,” the resolution noted.
What does a chunk of coral from the Caribbean Sea, a brick sidewalk, two outhouses, and a 200-year old ship have in common? They were all found in the recent excavation for the parking garage of the Indigo Hotel in Alexandria, Va. At one point these items were above the waterline of the Potomac River. However, a few decades after the city of Alexandria was founded in 1749, the riverfront landowner wanted to increase his property so he did something that was pretty common back then, he just filled in the river bank. Known as “banking out”, the landowner sometimes scuttles, or sinks, an old ship in the spot to help contain the new materials added to the riverbed. That is believed to the be the case for the 50-foot ship fragment found in this soon-to-be parking garage.
The ship was painstakingly excavated from the pit in January 2016 by Thunderbird Archaeology. The wood needed to stay wet to prevent additional deterioration so the pieces were placed in large water tanks in a city facility for storage and protection. Little is known about the actual ship. Researchers are hoping that its restoration will unveil some of its secrets, including its construction, history, and possibly even the crew. Preliminary research has revealed that the ship’s timber was felled in the state of Massachusetts sometime after 1741. Based on historic maps, it is thought that the ship was buried on the Potomac shoreline between 1788 and 1798, along with sand, rocks and other debris.
After requesting proposals from professional conservationists around the world, the City of Alexandria’s Archaeology Department put the ship into the hands of experts at Texas A&M University’s Center for Maritime Archaeology and Conservation (TAMU).
In preparation for its cross-country voyage, each beam of the ship was meticulously documented, examined, photographed and measured. All hands were on deck for this painstaking process. Each historic piece was wrapped in a wet paper-towel material, followed by plastic-wrap, then a layer of foam padding. Over 1.5 miles of foam padding were used to protect the precious cargo. When completed, the floor of the storage facility seemed to be covered with Egyptian mummies of all shapes and sizes.
TAMU will spend an extensive time documenting each piece of timber, creating a laser scanned image of each beam that can be used for further research. “We hope to learn about the ship’s construction methods and original size and appearance”, said Dr. Eleanor Breen, the acting City Archaeologist working on the project. TAMU will conduct a 2-step restoration process. Initially, the water will be slowly replaced with polyethylene glycol (PEG) to stabilize and strengthen the delicate planks. Finally, a freeze-drying procedure will remove any remaining moisture.
It may be 5 to 6 years before the ship’s homecoming, but the work for its return has already begun. “The ship is poised to be the anchor for a new waterfront historical interpretation of Alexandria’s maritime heritage,” claims Breen. The display is destined to be a figurehead of Alexandria’s maritime history.
To learn more about the ship and its restoration adventures, follow the Alexandria Archaeology Museum on Twitter at @AlexArchaeology or the hashtag #SaveOurShipALX. A Save Our Ship Fundraiser has been established to preserve this precious piece of history for future generations.
What the Future of our Water Supply Might Look Like
When residents of the Washington metropolitan area turn on their taps, potable water comes out. That it is a largely thoughtless practice is a testament to decades of careful planning and cooperation among area water suppliers assisted by the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin (ICPRB). The commission’s Section for Cooperative Water Supply Operations on the Potomac River (CO-OP) studies water use in the region, organizes coordinated utility operations during extreme droughts, and assesses the reliability of current and future raw water supplies. The ICPRB also helps basin water suppliers protect the region’s drinking water sources.
A new CO-OP study is proposing a range of solutions to increase the capacity of the region’s water supply, which could fail to meet unrestricted demands by 2040. In this case, there would be a small probability of failure if no action is taken to reduce water use during an extreme drought. The study, “Washington Metropolitan Area Water Supply Alternatives,” also provides information on options for a reliable water supply out to 2085. Alternatives have been evaluated according to their capabilities to increase future system reliability in the face of growing metropolitan area demands, decreasing river flows due to upstream consumptive use, and the potential impacts of climate change.
The options for augmenting future supply are both structural and operational. Many have been the subject of past investigations by metropolitan area water suppliers. Although most of the structural alternatives (for example, conversion of stone quarries to store water from the Potomac) would provide water directly to only one or two suppliers, all would provide regional benefits by reducing Potomac River withdrawals during times of low flow. All structural alternatives would require significant investments in new infrastructure including new underground conduits to transfer raw and/or treated water from one part of the supply system to another. The operational alternatives would require little or no infrastructure investment. They would instead require new cooperative agreements, and/or contracts between water suppliers, and/or investment in research to develop new operational tools and policies.
In general, the study found that combinations of structural and operational alternatives should be in place to ensure system reliability in the future. For the medium-term planning horizon of 2040, two strategies for phased implementation of quarries and operational enhancements were recommended for further refinement. These two combinations of alternatives were selected in part to ensure system reliability under a moderately severe climate scenario with a 7 percent decrease in average summer stream flows.
The strategies also consider the need for steps toward broader regional cooperation to help prepare for more severe challenges that may occur in the decades after 2040. Over the longer-term planning horizon, by 2085, study results indicate that most of the proposed alternatives will be needed to ensure future reliability.
“This is the next step in keeping the area’s water supply able to meet the demands of residents,” said ICPRB Executive Director Carlton Haywood. “The region’s water supply will maintain its very high level of reliability with proactive planning and actions by the water providers and governments. This level of planning, cooperation, and execution is why we are looked upon as an example by other regions,” Haywood said.
American Shad, Striped Bass Show Good Recruitment this Year
American shad and striped bass stocks had good spawns in the Potomac during 2017. Maryland’s annual young-of-the-year survey consists of seine net hauls at 22 locations around the Maryland portion of the Chesapeake Bay to gauge how many fish were hatched after the springtime spawn. The survey is an important tool in measuring the health of Chesapeake Bay and tidal river fisheries.
This year’s survey showed encouraging numbers for both striped bass and American shad. Many areas of the bay contributed to the striped bass number, while American shad reproduction came almost entirely from the Potomac.
Overall, bay-wide numbers for both the species were improved over a poor 2016. Maryland Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Biologist and manager of the young-of-year survey Eric Durrell noted that spring weather conditions, including river flow, water temperature, and other factors heavily influence the success of migratory fish species such as the striped bass and shad. The fish time their runs upriver based on these conditions, which give the eggs and larvae the best environmental conditions for success.
Striped bass in the Potomac were near the long-term average. American shad were well above the long-term average on the Potomac, and should help buoy stocks after a phenomenal 2015 Year Class. The same could not be said for the rest of the bay, where reproduction was minimal. “We caught 1,093 American shad during the survey,” Durrell said, “And 1,004 of those fish came from the Potomac.” He noted that the river has historically spawned a lot of shad and that the modifications of Little Falls Dam restored miles of historical spawning and nursery habitat for the fish. In the upper bay, The Susquehanna has several dams that limit the kind of habitat the fish needs, Durrell said.
The Potomac has benefitted from an ICPRB organized coalition of government agencies, nonprofits, schools, and teachers who played a role in aggressively stocking the river for about 10 years and pushed for the modifications to the dam that reopened about 10 miles of the fishes’ habitat. The project is one of the success stories of the Chesapeake Bay cleanup. Read more about the project online.
American shad reproduction has not been going well on the James and Rappahannock rivers in Virginia, despite a multi-year stocking effort that has, at times, used eggs taken from Potomac fish. A lack of progress toward goals and budget considerations have curtailed the stocking efforts on those rivers.
More information on the juvenile striped bass program and the more than 100 species of fish that are seen during the effort is available online.
The Past, Present, and Future of Potomac Aquatic Plants and Why they Matter
For many people, a boat trip or walk along the shores of the metropolitan Potomac includes seeing a lot of aquatic plants (as well as some algae). Many sections of the Potomac support lush grass beds during the warm months. This has not always been the case, and the growth of submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV) has both signaled and been a major factor in the improved water quality of the river. The resurgence of many species of SAV during the last four decades points to the river’s revitalization, noted Nancy Rybicki, a U.S, Geological Survey scientist who has monitored Potomac aquatic plant growth during that time.
Rybicki periodically updates groups about the river’s plant status, as she did recently at a meeting of the Friends of Dyke Marsh. The packed room was given a history lesson, as well as warnings about water chestnut, an aquatic plant that once crowded the river downstream of Washington, then was eradicated, and has recently reestablished.
Rybicki’s focus over the years has been the upper tidal Potomac. The lower Potomac has not fared as well. The saltier lower river still suffers from water clarity and low dissolved oxygen issues, and is more strongly affected by Chesapeake Bay water quality issues.
The Potomac’s plant populations declined significantly from nutrient and sediment pollution and accompanying algal blooms through the 1930s but massive water chestnut stands downstream of Washington remained. Unlike other aquatic plants, the rooted water chestnut lives on the water’s surface where it can get the sunlight it needed to flourish, despite the sediment and pollution. By 1933, 10,000 acres of dense water chestnut beds clogged the river from Washington, D.C. to Quantico, Va. The growth was finally controlled by a multi-year harvesting and eradication effort by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that ended in 1945. Removal by hand continued until at least 1965.
Sewage treatment has improved greatly beginning in the 1970s, resulting in some water quality improvements. About 1983, some vegetation returned to the metropolitan river. Monitoring revealed that the plants were hydrilla, a non-native plant often mistaken for the resident plant elodea. They can be distinguished by the number of leaves that encircle the stem―elodea has 3 leaves while hydrilla has 4-5 leaves per whorl, giving the plant a bushier look. Based on hydrilla management schemes in Florida, which was spending millions of dollars a year, the ICPRB brought groups together to assess the issue. Eventually, an intergovernmental group started mechanically harvesting the plants in areas with high boat traffic.
Although not a native plant, hydrilla stands helped improve water clarity, and hydrilla was followed by a number of other, native, aquatic plants that returned to the river. Hydrilla remains the most common plant, but now shares the river with about 20 other species of plants. Learn to distinguish some of the most common species in the article below. Both the amounts and diversity of aquatic plants increased 10-fold from 1990 to 2007, and continues to increase, Rybicki noted. The growth of Potomac plant populations in a fragile but improving Potomac during that time has been uneven, with weather conditions in any given year (stormy springs with reduced sunlight, high flows that scour the river bottom, cooler temperatures, and other factors) promoting or reducing plant growth.
The growth of aquatic plants in the Potomac has helped improve water quality, helping make the river habitable to more plants, as well as providing food, cover, and water clarity that supports more fish and other creatures in the Potomac ecosystem.
Common Plant Species Found in the Potomac River
The metropolitan Potomac River, devoid of aquatic plants in the late 1970s, saw the return of both native and invasive plants in the following decades. Plant populations in the river grew by a factor of ten from 1990-2007. More than 20 species of plants now call the river home, these include:
Hydrilla (Hydrilla verticillata): is an invasive plant that was one of the first to appear in the river’s resurgence of plants in 1981, remains the most common species on the river. It grows in dense beds and can be found in both the fresh and tidal waters. (Photo: David J. Moorhead, University of Georgia, Bugwood.org)
Wild celery (Vallisneria americana): is a native plant that is an important food source for birds. (Photo: Gary P. Fleming, DCR-DNH)
Eurasian watermilfoil (Myriophyllum spicatum): is a non-native plant favored by Potomac sport anglers. Its feather like leaves make it less dense than stands of other plants, allowing anglers to penetrate the beds with lures and catch fish. (Photo: Wisconsin DNR)
Coontail (Ceratophyllum demersum): also known as hornwort, has slender, densely branched stems. It does not put roots into the river bed, but lives as long strands anchored by other plants or structure. It spreads mainly through segments of plant breaking off and floating to new areas. (Photo: Paul Skawinski, 2009)
Waterweed (Elodea canadensis): is a native plant that looks a lot like hydrilla. It is primarily found in fresh water, but can tolerate some salt and is found in the tidal Potomac as well. (Photo: Christian Fischer)
Water stargrass (Heteranthera dubia): is a native plant with grass-like leaves and sprouts small yellow flowers later in the summer. The plant is found mostly in the freshwater river, but has been extending its range into the upper tidal river. (Photo: Fritz Flohr Reynolds)
Water chestnut (Trapa Natans): has only recently become an issue on the Potomac, but may be spreading from stormwater ponds into the river. If you see it, report it! See the article above for more information.
In the last Potomac Basin Reporter, we challenged your knowledge of the river with our quiz:”How much do you know about the Potomac River?”
We were impressed with the results! There are a lot of Potomac River experts out there. We thought the questions would be difficult, but the average quiz-taker answered 67% of the questions correctly.
It’s not too late to take the quiz! Click here to take it before reading further. Then come back here to compare your results. The most correctly answered question asked to identify how many jurisdictions the Potomac River spans. A whopping 86% of you chose the correct answer of four states (Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania) and the District of Columbia. The most difficult question, with only 46% of people answering correctly, was the average number of gallons withdrawn from the Potomac River each day. This includes irrigation, agriculture, residential and all other uses. This number spikes in the hottest months of the summer, but the average daily withdrawal from the Potomac is 486 million gallons, or 736 Olympic sized pools.
ICPRB in the Community
Staffers at ICPRB spent many fun summer days sharing their love of the Potomac River watershed with the residents who call it home. The ICPRB tables shared information on water quality, educator resources, and other information on the basin. Here are just a few of the events they enjoyed:
Festival del Rio – This multi-cultural, bilingual event is designed to give Latinos an opportunity to learn about local environmental issues.
Jones Point Park Event (Alexandria, Va.) – 75 fourth-graders enjoyed a day of outdoor environmental education at this Every Kid in a Park event.
West Va. Science Teachers Association Conference (Wheeling, W.Va.) – ICPRB staff shared our m any educator resources with West Virginia science teachers.
As part of ICPRB’s Score Four program, the high school students celebrated the Conservation Garden installation at Northwestern High School in Hyattsville, Md. Watch the sign dedication ceremony on Facebook.