The feds and the states have spent umpty-ump dollars cleaning up the nation's rivers and to guess by the local scene it worked. The Potomac is cleaner than anyone around can remember, loaded with fish, a perfect natural resource for people to use not that you can't afford to drive anywhere anyway.
One small problem. Unless you have some very unusual personal flotation devices, it helps to have a boat to enjoy the revived Potomac. So where do you put your boat in?
Start looking. It's a grim scene that gets worse at each stop.
"There's ramp down behind the Park Police station in Anacostia River Park," said the National Park Service spokesman. "Lots of people use that."
If so, it's for something other than boat-launching. When I visited there the concrete ended about six feet short of the dingy water, which lapped at a mixture of sand and mud and trash. Not that you'd much want to leave your car and trailer there anyway, with no one within sight to keep an eye on it and a humble little parking lot for five cars and trailers at most.
How about the Washington Sailing Marina? No ramp there, just a hoist for hauling the sailboats of people who keep boats there. You need a special gadget to hook up the hoist, and you're supposed to run it yourself. Not exactly a nice way to experiment with your fancy trailerable boat.
The Park Service has another boat ramp at Gravelly Point Park just below National Airport. If you can stomach the roar of the jets and the kerosene stench you can put in there, but folks who use the ramp claim it's difficult and occasionally impossible to take out at low tide. There is a steep drop where the concrete ends (again before it ought to) and trailers have been hung there.
How about Columbia Island, the protected Marina next to the Pentagon near Theodore Roosevelt Island? The sign there says the ramp is open from 9 to 6, which is less than ideal for fishermen who know dawn and dusk are the best times.
But it turns out the ramp doesn't work at all right now, and when it does there is an in out charge of $6.50 (scheduled to go up to $8.50 soon). The Columbia Island ramp is a fancy steel gadget that rolls up and down on its own.It's great for people who want to drop their boats in for the season, but not too great for people who keep their boats at home and go in the water several times a week.
Fort McNair Marina has a ramp, but it's generally half-covered by river flotsam and it, too, has a precarious low-water dropoff. It may be generally safe for four-wheel-drive vehicles, but standard cars stands the risk of getting hung up.
At Buzzard's Point Marina the ramp is so steep they won't let cars up and down it. The trailers are lowered with a huge electric winch. The boss man there said, "We can put your boat in, all right. But we can't just up and do it. We're not set up that way."
He said to make a appointment, and that he'd charge $20 to do the job. "You can't get anybody to do anything in a boat yard for less than $20," he said.
You can always go somewhere else. Like Bel Haven Marina, south of Alexandria which has a nice ramp that even looks fairly safe. The charge is $2, in and out. Only problem is no place to park on the weekends.
"Just tell people not to even bother trying to use the ramp on the weekends," said George Stevens, who runs the marina. "It's more trouble than it's worth."
Mike Walwer, who runs Columbia Island, agreed that the boat ramp situation in Washington borders on the intolerable. "What we really need is for the District to build and staff a good ramp in the city, probably down at East Potomac Park," he said.
And why not? There probably isn't a body of water as useful and popular as the Potomac anywhere else in the country that doesn't have a respectable public boat-access ramp.
The no-ramp mess probably stems from a general attitude that exists in the D.C. government and the Park Service. The agencies seem to feel that if you convince people the river is dirty and dangerous you won't have to bother supervising it -- one less headache for officialdom, one less recreational outlet for the people.
The problem is that the people are getting smart. Bass fishermen flock to the Washington ship channel, sailors race every weekend below Hains Point, canoeists and kayakers play in the rapids below Great Falls, bank fishermen enjoy the spawning runs above Key Bridge and striped-bass fishermen pursue the Maryland state fish in the waters off Alexandria all summer and fall.
The increase in fuel prices is narrowing the number of people who can afford big bay and ocean boats. More and more people are turning to trailerable rigs that are at home on rivers, in protected bays and, on nice days, in big water.
It's up to the government now to see that they get to use the river their dollars rejuvenated.