Debate Over Future of Dyke Marsh

Public hearing on how much open water should return to marshland

The future of about 480 acres of marsh land on the Potomac between Alexandria and Mount Vernon has generated a controversy that has boaters and the National Park Service on opposite shores.

Dyke Marsh is believed to have formed some 500 years ago. Its present day name is derived from efforts in the early 1800s to build dykes allowing the marsh to be drained and converted to a grazing area for livestock. Those plans were abandoned, but in the ‘30s a big chunk of the marsh was dredged and mined. That changed it significantly.

"That lasted up until the late 1970s,” National Park Service biologist Brent Steury said. “We lost almost half the marsh to that sand and gravel mining.”

Those who frequent the area say it's a wetland jewel, adjacent to Belle Haven Marina -- also a jewel to boaters and students of the sailing school and others who frequent the Potomac.

“Every boater here loves this facility because of Dyke Marsh, so we all want to see the marsh restored," Belle Haven Marina President George Stevens said.

But some say plans for that restoration could mean the end of the marina -- at least as they know it.

There are four options being considered. One would be to leave things as they are. The others would, to varying degrees, return open water to marshland.

"Proposals B and C both block off this cove back here, so the natural flow of water through the marsh will be stopped,” Stevens said. “Makes it kind of a stagnant, dead-end cove.”

Option D fills it in altogether.

"We don’t even think these proposals should be on the table,” Stevens said. “I think we should be having a combination of how can we increase boating access and restore Dyke Marsh.”

The wetlands help clean the water. They're perfect for game fish to breed. And they also harbor important birds and aquatic plants.

"Predominately, the marsh is made up of narrow leaf cattail and a statewide rare plant called river bulrush,” Steury said. “Although it’s rare across the state of Virginia, it’s quite common here at Dyke Marsh."

The public comment period ends this week, and while it could be years before the marsh is restored to whatever degree it will be, it's already coming down to the wire for the marsh and its neighbor, the marina.

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