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Fletcher’s Set To Reopen With New Dock As Temporary Fix

By Katie PearceCurrent Staff Writer

The boathouse at Fletcher’s Cove will reopen for its regular season this weekend, with its previously unsafe walkway to the Potomac River now fixed. But that work was just a patch-up for a problem that’s been building for decades at the waterside recreation area.

Local advocates and officials are now searching for a long-term solution to the cove’s problem of excess silt buildup — thought to trace back to the 1960s.

The latest consequence was debris collecting beneath the cove’s walkway last fall, making it dangerous to use. With river access blocked, Fletcher’s Boathouse was forced to close down in October.

But the National Park Service just finished installing a new floating dock there this week, meaning the boathouse can reopen on time for its spring season.

“We have a short-term solution, but our work has really just begun for a long-term solution,” said Mike Bailey, an executive member of Friends of Fletcher’s Cove.

The advocacy group formed last fall when the river access was blocked, starting with a petition of over 450 signatures to get the Park Service’s attention.

Now that the smaller problem is solved, the Friends group is working to obtain formal nonprofit status and map out future fundraising possibilities. The group says extensive studies may be necessary to correct the long-standing forces that are “silting in” Fletcher’s Cove, Bailey said.

The cove, located on the Potomac between Chain and Key bridges in the C&O Canal National Historical Park, is a popular spot for fishers, canoers and kayakers, among other recreational uses.

A public boathouse first opened there after the Civil War, and today the Park Service oversees its concessions. Archaeological digs have found evidence that Native Americans once used the area to camp and fish, and President Andrew Jackson was known to fish there.

The cove’s current problem with silt is believed to be manmade. In the 1960s and ’70s, a field of landfill was built at the river’s edge and in the wetlands just north of Fletcher’s Cove. The soil for the landfill was excavated from two local projects, involving the Dulles Interceptor Sewer and Metro construction, according to research by the Friends group.

But the landfill apparently altered the natural patterns of the Potomac River in a way that’s harmful to the shoreline of Fletcher’s Cove. “Now the river slides back into the cove and deposits silt,” Bailey said.

A few dredging projects, the last one in 1996, attempted to address the problem but provided only temporary fixes. “You can compare it to digging a hole at the beach when the tide is coming back in,” said Bailey, who’s been fishing at Fletcher’s for 40 years.

The issue impacts not only recreational access to the cove, but also “emergency response capabilities in the lower Potomac Gorge,” according to Friends chair Nicolas Miller. “This location provides the only launching point to the dangerous Little Falls area upstream for the U.S. Park Police, D.C. Fire and Rescue and Montgomery County Rescue,” Miller wrote in a recent letter to the Park Service.

The Friends group has expressed gratitude to the Park Service for working quickly to restore river access. But Miller adds in his letter that the group is “committed to help with a long-term solution in any way appropriate, including assisting with necessary fundraising to support environmental assessments and site remediation.”

Gregory Kniesler, chief of maintenance for the C&O Canal National Historical Park, said the first step of a “multiphased plan” could be minor dredging at the end of the fishing season next fall, if approved by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Next, officials will evaluate the possibility of “dredging the entire cove” and removing some or all of the problematic landfill upriver, Kniesler wrote in an email. A long-range plan could involve “environmental restoration of the Potomac River shoals just upstream of Fletchers Cove,” he wrote.

More information on the issue and the Friends group is available at

This article appears in the March 25 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.