Restoring the River’s Wetlands

Gateways consists of non-tidal wetlands with a total area of about 10 acres, the picture shows a pond located right in the middle of the wetland which normally dries out in late summer. This pond provides important habitat for aquatic plants, invertebrates, wetland birds, amphibians, reptiles and other organisms.

The once extensive marshes carpeted with Wild Rice (Zizania aquatica) made the Anacostia River a prime destination for Rail bird-hunting in the nineteenth century. Today the river’s wetlands are just a shadow of what they used to be. Little by little, the river has been slowly recovering its wetlands, reclaiming the lands taken by years of dredging, filling, and the construction of berms, seawalls, and other disturbances. The river has lost about 2,500 acres of tidal wetlands and over 4,000 acres of non-tidal wetlands in the last half century, or so. Before this destruction, the river had a wide swath of tidal wetlands and adjacent non-tidal wetlands on both sides of its course. It was like a little North American Amazon with thriving fish populations including now-rare species (or virtually gone), like sturgeons. If you could travel back in time, you would perhaps see big, loud heron rookeries, a splashing symphony of migrant shad swimming up river, breaking the water’s surface in the spring, and the voices of plentiful rails emerging from the dense wild rice stands on a nice fall day.

Map of the Gateways wetlands located right across the river from the Kenilworth lake/ Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens.

With our restoration projects, AWS is seeking to bring back some of that natural character that made the river an outstanding place. Notwithstanding, the state of the river (and the whole planet for that matter!) in the present XXI century makes it impossible to bring all that natural grandeur back. The Anacostia River is an urban river after all, there are more than a million people living in this watershed. We are extremely lucky to have some high-quality natural areas protected by the National Park Service and the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC), some of which were established more than 80 years ago! This history of good land stewardship paves the way for restoration opportunities that result in more wildlife, more outdoor recreation opportunities, and other wonderful benefits that ecosystems provide.

In this 14-year photo sequence you can see the changes this wetland has experienced. An increase in the area covered by Phragmites to the point that, currently, 7 acres are completely dominated by the invasive wetland grass. Phragmites has affected the hydrology of this non-tidal wetland resulting in a reduction of the pond area and affecting the woody plant community that sorrounded the pond.

One of our favorite sites at AWS is the Gateways wetlands in NE DC, just south of New York Avenue NE and the Amtrak railroad, and east of the U.S. National Arboretum. If DC has backwoods, these are the finest in the city. With a mixture of upland forests, floodplain forests, tidal and nontidal wetlands; and the fact that this section of Anacostia Park is closed to the public, the Gateways wetlands are a real wildlife sanctuary. With funding from National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF), AWS is currently completing a restoration feasibility study to see what can be done to make this wetlands a greater habitat for fish and wildlife and possibly even reconnecting them to the river’s tidal hydrology. In the meantime, we have been busy removing Phragmites, of which there is a 7-acre area completely carpeted by the invasive plant. We started the Phragmites removal efforts last fall and will continue through this year. Like with any restoration or invasive plant removal effort it is always fascinating to see what plants pop up after the removal efforts. Plants that have been dormant for even decades in the seedbank under the hefty Phragmites biomass have a chance to reemerge. This can bring interesting natives or also more Phragmites and other invasive species. We will definitely keep you updated on this great jewel in NE DC.

The Phragmites growth at Gateways is extremely dense (over 14 years old) making it impossible to walk the site without a machete. This thick Phragmites cover makes it imposible for any native wetland plant to grow making it a low qualitat wetland habitat for wildlife.




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