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Flooded trails and full toilets: Storms wreak havoc on D.C.-area parks

A road is closed in May along the C&O Canal trail upstream from Harpers Ferry.
A road is closed in May along the C&O Canal trail upstream from Harpers Ferry. (National Park Service)

The deluge of storms throughout the Washington area over the past several months has done more than ruin summer plans — it has wreaked millions of dollars in damage to the region’s national park land.

Weather-related damage this year is among the worst in recent memory, officials said, and has forced the National Park Service to brainstorm strategies for maintenance and upkeep amid shrinking budgets.

Parks in the Washington region have been pummeled by storms since early spring, Park Service officials said, causing floods, downed trees, washed-out trails and waterways so bloated that repairs have been nearly impossible.

In many cases, the damage has outpaced the agency’s ability to fund fixes and hampered basic maintenance tasks such as cutting grass and emptying toilets.

“There hasn’t been a specific allocation of money made someplace that we can apply to fix a lot of the damage,” said Park Service Superintendent Kevin Brandt, who oversees the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park, which was hit hard in May. “So we’ve been scrambling around trying to figure out how we can deal with the most urgent needs within our appropriated budgets.”

Since the beginning of June, the Washington area has been doused with more than a foot of rain, largely concentrated in July and August. That is more than twice the average for this time of year.

According to The Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang, the area has seen nearly 20 inches of rain this summer, which ranks as the eighth most on record with a week remaining.

Yes, this summer has been exceptionally wet. Here’s how strange it’s been.

The first issues arose in March, when high winds forced Prince William Forest Park to close for weeks as crews removed debris, downed power lines and more than 600 fallen or hazardous trees. It cost more than $600,000 to clear the area to the point where the park could reopen to visitors, Park Service spokeswoman Jenny Anzelmo-Sarles said.

In May, a landslide in Maryland cut off a link to Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. A contractor hired to remove debris and stabilize the slope of land is preparing to begin work at the site, Anzelmo-Sarles said.

So far, it has cost more than $200,000 — and, Anzelmo-Sarles added, “that cost will climb.”

The May storms and those that followed also hit the C&O site, a 184.5-mile sliver of land that runs along the Potomac from Georgetown to Cumberland, Md.

Weeks of rain overflowed rivers and creeks that, in turn, washed out sections of the path and “significantly damaged” parts of the watershed, Brandt said.

The path, used by cyclists and pedestrians, was flooded so badly that over the past few months, park rangers have seen people wading while carrying their bikes to reach the other side.

“I know for all the visitors who are long-distance riders, it has not been a pleasant experience,” Brandt said.

In a typical year, he said, the park sees “main stem floods” during heavy rain. In those cases, he said, portions of the Potomac overrun the riverbanks, causing slow-moving floods that can create damage that is generally manageable.

The floods this year, caused by storms that unloaded several inches of rain at a time, were fast-moving and destructive flash floods. Fixing the damaged portion of the C&O path is expected to take several weeks once work begins.

Along other parts of the path, areas have been washed out, and some culverts, small tunnels used for drainage beneath the trail system, have been ruined and need to be replaced.

“The only good thing, in terms of timing, is, the Park Service had already allocated money in fiscal year 2018 to resurface the towpath from Brunswick to Shepherdstown — and that was the area hardest hit by these flash floods,” Brandt said. “So, hopefully we can use that money to fix part of that area.”

Flooding strands a groundhog on a fence as a camera rolled. Viewers demanded a rescue effort.

Preliminary estimates indicate the park might have incurred more than $14 million in damage from storms this year, Brandt said. The Park Service already has spent $1 million trying to assess and contain the damage along the canal, a number Anzelmo-Sarles said will probably increase as crews make their way into the area.

The dilemma of not being able to access problem areas extends beyond the banks of rivers and creeks.

In Georgetown, grass remained uncut for months as the Park Service “played catch-up” on maintenance during short stints of dry weather, Brandt said. But even when rain was not falling, some areas remained too wet to mow.

Toilets along the trails also posed a problem. The pump trucks that clean park bathrooms are heavy, and attempting to drive through the mud could create even more damage. Other times, water made the trails impassible.

For Park Service officials, the wet weather has done more than cause months of headaches — it has made them think critically about the future.

“This is the first time in a long time we’ve seen the storms going on and on all summer like they have this year,” Brandt said. “We’re thinking we’re going to have to look at entirely new strategies for how to deal with that when it happens again.”

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