A summer drought followed by rain from Hurricane Floyd has turned the "fun side of the Potomac" into what some are now referring to as the "littered" side.
Each day, the tide sweeps loads of debris-- mostly bottles, cans and plastic foam--into the small coves and inlets that punctuate Old Town's waterfront. It's a problem that city officials have coped with for years. But low water levels, churning rains and the rapid growth of underwater vegetation have made the problem worse this year. Instead of washing into the river, much of the trash is trapped near city parks and tourist areas.
And it's not just trash. Local residents say they've seen dead waterfowl and rodents tangled in the mess, which is concentrated near Founders Park at the foot of Queen Street.
While city workers pick up the litter that makes it to shore, most of the garbage--which includes mighty hunks of wood and logs--collects among the plants and floats out of reach and in plain view of visitors and residents. Most days, bottles, cups and food containers bob on the surface of the water, suspended above an undulating carpet of flaky green duckweed, hydrilla and other sea grasses.
"It's nothing less than disgusting," said Alexandria City Council member Redella S. "Del" Pepper (D). "It's an eyesore. There's no two ways about it."
Residents complain that the debris, most of which comes from boaters and is carried to shore from other parts of the Potomac, smells of rot during the summer. They worry about health risks and the possibility, they say, that the mess could attract disease-carrying mosquitoes.
Nora Devlin has lived on Queen Street for 11 months and has been one of the most outspoken critics of the floating trash, which she said has become a "source of shame" to residents of the area.
"It's cool now, but during the hot and humid days the air was putrid to breathe," Devlin said. "You feel like you're living in a rotting swamp. I don't know how the arms of government think this is an acceptable way to greet visitors and the citizenry."
In fact, city officials are none too pleased with the unsightly collection of trash. But how do you fight the tides and the bad habits of those who litter?
Officials with the Alexandria Seaport Foundation's Seaport Center, which is housed on a dock beside Founders Park, have tacked a placard near their building's front door to explain the origin of the living green blanket visitors see as they approach. It reads: "What's growing in our front yard" and details the aquatic vegetation that is visible.
While foundation officials applaud the appearance and growth of the sea grasses, which are more plentiful because the drought enabled them to flourish, the seaport foundation has offered the city use of a boat to pull out some of the hydrilla, which they say has overwhelmed the area.
"We'd love to help in any way we can," said Mary Lou Livingood, associate director of the seaport foundation, a nonprofit organization that promotes Alexandria's maritime history, teaches traditional wooden boat building and environmental science programs and has an apprentice program for at-risk youth.
Hoping to reduce the trash problem, city workers are being dispatched more regularly to pick up garbage along the shore, and officials said they're requesting money in next year's budget to fund more staff to patrol the mess.
"It's a challenge to keep it clean, and we're trying," said Sandra Whitmore, the city's director of recreation, parks and cultural activities. "It will never be pristine. We can be out there one hour to pick up glass bottles and plastic foam cups and the next hour people have dropped things out of their boats. But we're committed to making it as clean a waterfront as possible."
While Whitmore acknowledged that one of the biggest problems is the underwater vegetation that prevents the garbage from being washed away, she said the aquatic life is important to the ecosystem and will not be removed.
Instead, she said, city officials hope to use a boat regularly to enter the coves and scoop up trash from hard-to-reach places.
Pepper said she's eager to find alternative solutions. One possibility, she said, is netting, which she speculates could be used to collect the garbage before it becomes snarled in the leafy undergrowth. Another possibility might include filling in the cove to prevent the tide from washing garbage ashore.
"There's got to be a way to solve this," Pepper said. "We may have to think outside the box."
Walking along the waterfront at Founders Park last week, Jacqueline Baldwin cautioned her young grandson to stay clear of the green, gloppy water.
"Look at that muck," said Baldwin, who lives in Washington. "Mucky yuck. It's such a shame. It didn't used to look like this."
Added a passerby, "Don't want to fall in that!"
City Council member David G. Speck (D) works on Union Street and said he has watched as city workers come with bags to collect trash from the water just outside the popular Torpedo Factory. "By the next day, it's back," Speck said. Trash collects in several spots along the waterfront, which stretches from Oronoco Bay Park south to Pomander Park. Affordable solutions, Speck said, are few.
"I don't know of any way to fix it without spending hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars to change the way the river runs," Speck said. "I'm not a river expert, but it's a very common problem when you have docks and inlets. . . . We can't stop the trash from appearing, but we should be able to get rid of it on a regular basis. We're trying to figure out the best way."
CAPTION: At Founders Park, above, and elsewhere along the Alexandria waterfront, water pools in the many inlets, trapping boaters' litter and preventing it from washing away.