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Ten years after the Navy produced a shoreline management plan intended to protect its assets along the Potomac River at Naval Support Facility (NSF) Indian Head and the base's Stump Neck Annex, the project to construct 17,100 feet of living shoreline is nearly complete.

Construction of the sills and breakwaters along shores of the Potomac River and Mattawoman Creek was completed in late May. Last week, volunteers worked for four days, some of them in sweltering heat, to plant more of the natural vegetation that will hold onto the shoreline.

The full shoreline restoration project - conducted in four phases - has created 12 acres of wetland, planted nearly 50,000 trees and shrubs, and carpeted the riverbank with 100,000 square feet of native, warm weather grasses.

"This has been the culmination of a 12-year effort," said Jeff Bossart, environmental program director for Naval Support Activity South Potomac (NSASP). "We expect the final planting to be in the fall."

Erosion and storm damage caused a road onboard NSF Indian Head to collapse in 1998. The Navy was forced to demolish several critical facilities and several more were threatened. A shoreline management plan in 2002 called for the construction of a living shoreline to not only protect those assets, but do so in a way that would help protect the delicate ecology of the Chesapeake Bay region. The $20 million project now protects $54 million of Navy property.

"The significance of the shoreline project is that the Navy was able to protect mission-critical infrastructure, enhance aquatic-terrestrial plant and animal habitat, and improve water quality within the Chesapeake Bay Watershed," said Seth Barry, natural resources program manager for NSASP's Environmental Division at NSF Indian Head.

In a time of budget cuts, the project came "at a minimal cost, as opposed to relocating infrastructure and personnel," said Berry, who thanked the project's many organizations and volunteers for it a success.

Improved habitat, water quality

The National Aquarium conservation team spearheaded the planting effort with the help of several other organizations, including the Maryland Conservation Corps and Americorps. A diverse group of volunteers came together for the most recent effort to plant grass and pickerel weed along stretches of the base's shoreline, a process that began in 2008.

"This is a win-win situation for the Navy and for the environment," said Laura Bankey, director of conservation for the National Aquarium. "It protects the shoreline and it protects the Navy's assets. Creating not just a rock shoreline, but a living shoreline, helps the natural resources of this area."

Compliance with regulatory agencies and the unique geographical challenges posed by the eroding riverbank along NSF Indian Head and Stump Neck Annex make the living shoreline a viable, permanent solution, said Berry. "Many areas have eroding cliffs between 35-80 feet in height, and piling rocks along these areas would not prevent future erosion or protect infrastructure."

Charmaine Dahlenburg, a project manager with the National Aquarium Conservation Team, spoke about some of the natural resources the shoreline will enhance.

"The habitat is going to help clean the water and provide niches for our blue crabs, our striped bass, for migratory birds that pass through," she said. "So the community really benefits, whether you're a fisherman, whether you just like to eat crab or if you're a bird watcher."

Bankey said the area of the Potomac River near Indian Head and Mattawoman Creek is relatively pristine and the shoreline restoration will help keep it that way. "It's clear water," she said. "There's tons of diversity. We see bald eagles every 10 minutes.

"When the tide comes in, you'll see the fish that come to the marsh grasses. It's so rich and so diverse and so wonderful," she adds. "Being able to help that habitat and improve it, as well as help protect the resources of the Navy has been a great thing for everybody."

Not long after this conversation, volunteers spotted an Atlantic needlefish near the breakwaters along with numerous schools of tiny minnows. A nearby bass fisherman cast along the structures, suggesting the effort was indeed proving beneficial to local wildlife. The sonar on a Maryland Department of Natural Resources boat used to ferry volunteers between work sites showed schools of larger fish in the vicinity.

"The Navy has realized the potential [of the living shoreline] and has really used it in a significant way," said Bankey. "They're doing the right thing in many, many ways."

Good for the soul

Stewardship seems to be the primary motivation of the volunteers, though taking in the natural beauty of the area comes in a close second. Putting those feelings into action when the temperature is hovering around 100 degrees is no small task.

"Most of them just want to give back to the community and give back to the environment," said Bankey. "You come out here and it's a lot of hard work, but at the end of the day you see the marsh that was created. You see the fish. The bald eagles are flying and you know you're doing something good."

One of last year's volunteers decided she liked the work so much, she decided to make it into a career.

"I used to be with the Maryland Conservation Corps volunteer program, but I was hired on at the [National] Aquarium last year," said Laura Cattell Noll, a conservation technician. "I love these projects so much that I thought maybe I could come back."

As she dug holes and planted, Cattell Noll was clearly working, but did not seem to think so. "I just like being outside, on the water and under the trees," she said. "I know these wetland grasses really help to clean the water and that's important. It's a mission I'm committed to personally."

An intern hoped to follow Cattell Noll's footsteps into a career.

"Being an environmental science major, I'm really focused on conservation," said Lakiah Clark, a senior at Tuskegee University and a work study intern with the National Aquarium Conservation Team. "It's good to come out here and restore eroded land."

Some of the volunteers are fulfilling a 10-month commitment to give back to their community. "It's what I enjoy doing," said Sara Decker, a volunteer with the Maryland Conservation Corps.

"It's really nice to get out of the office to the outdoors. Helping the environment is right up my alley. I get to bird watch while I work."

Chuck Kohls, a retired Navy officer and volunteer, pulled no punches when he talked about what motivated him to volunteer. "If we don't do something about cleaning the [Chesapeake] Bay, it will become the world's largest cesspool," he said.

"So we have to work and we all have to think about this environment. That's why I'm here. And you meet such wonderful people; the group is so good."

Mary Sidlowski, a longtime volunteer who has spent many hours on the river bank, gave perhaps the most simple and comprehensive reason why she and others give their time and effort to make the living shoreline at Indian Head and Stump Neck a reality. "It's good for the soul."