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D.C. officials are still promising to remove Rock Creek’s barricades—after they doom another year’s worth of blueback herring.

When it comes to middle age, fish and humans can be frighteningly similar.

Take, for instance, the blueback herring, a species of fish that spends most of its life slinking about the ocean. One day, roughly halfway through its life, the herring feels an urge to start a family, but the big city—er, the ocean is just no place to spawn.

Instincts tell the fish to head to its ancestral waters—which, in the case of thousands of blueback herring, means a swim up Rock Creek toward Rockville. No problem there. It’s just a quick jaunt up the Potomac River, where even the toxins caused by overpopulation and development are no match for this determined little fish.

But when the annual migration up Rock Creek reaches a spot next to the National Zoo, it becomes apparent that the herring should have listened to Michael Stipe. The journey back to Rockville comes to a crashing halt when the fish slam into a pair of concrete slabs that currently serve no purpose, except to stifle the instinctive urges of a declining species. District officials confirm that Rock Creek’s populations of bluebacks and other herring species have declined because many fish die when they can’t make it past the barriers to their spawning waters.

The barriers, first reported two spawning seasons ago by the Washington City Paper (“Aquatic Cul-de-Sac,” 6/26/98), are fords that once carried automobile traffic over the creek. But in 1966, a new roadway was constructed, rendering the slabs obsolete. District officials, the National Zoo, the National Park Service, and various other agencies have conceded for years that the barriers should be removed.

After the City Paper’s 1998 story, officials from the District’s Fisheries and Wildlife Division said the fords would be removed within a year. But after two years of pressure from environmentalists and local residents—if not the herring—the slabs are still in place. And they won’t be removed anytime soon, according to Ira Palmer, head of the division.

“In the simplest terms, it’s a typical government process that takes a lot of time to do,” Palmer says. He adds that funding the removal of the two slabs, a feat whose price tag he estimates at between $40,000 and $60,000, has been the most prominent obstacle so far. The city, when it doesn’t have direct funding, often attempts to include such projects in budgets for other work in the area.

In fact, documents obtained by the City Paper show that District officials attempted to include the removal of the slabs in plans for mitigation work on an unrelated October 1998 construction project at Dumbarton Bridge, about a mile south of the barricades. An October 15, 1998, letter from the city’s Environmental Health Administration to the Army Corps of Engineers advises that bids should be taken for the project, with the slabs scheduled to be removed by early 1999.

But for reasons city officials can’t explain, the removal didn’t happen. Palmer says an agreement with the D.C. Department of Public Works (DPW) to remove the fords was reached last year, but construction crews missed their limited window of opportunity to remove the slabs before the spring spawning season began. “Without disturbing a significant number of fish, you can only do something like this between November and the first of March,” he says. “So, if you missed it last year, you essentially have to wait another year.”

And, although officials say they have tried to include the removal in other construction projects in the area—including those initiated by the private sector—no one told Neal Fitzpatrick, a local activist who’s been watching the issue for years.

Fitzpatrick says that last December his group, the Audubon Naturalist Society, asked officials involved in the project if volunteer labor could remove the barriers. The National Park Service advised that it would be up to the National Zoo to answer that question, because the slabs, after all, are on its property. “When we wrote to the National Zoo, we didn’t get so much as a response,” Fitzpatrick says.

Zoo spokesperson Robert Hoage flips the herring question right back to District officialdom. “The driver in this project is the D.C. Fisheries,” Hoage says.

Ironically, the money to finally liberate migrating fish from all the institutional buck-passing may come from a project that’s anathema to Fitzpatrick’s fellow environmentalists. According to Palmer, if the current agreement with DPW doesn’t get rid of the fords, future spending to prepare the area’s riverways for the construction of a new Woodrow Wilson Bridge across the Potomac—a full nine miles from the barriers—will do the trick.

The gargantuan Wilson Bridge project, subject to its own array of headaches, is scheduled to be completed by 2007. Among the items to be included in the “mitigation,” according to Palmer, are: removal of the two slabs and installation of a fish ladder—which enables fish to swim past man-made barriers—at the Pierce Mill Dam upstream.

Fitzpatrick says the improvements could promise an additional eight miles of roaming waters for the herring, taking the fish well into Montgomery County, where they would face other obstacles, such as a pair of flood-control lakes at the end of Rock Creek. But that’s better than nothing, Fitzpatrick says, even though he’s not exactly thrilled at the prospect of waiting a few more years for the project.

“I think it’s crazy to wait until we get money from the Wilson Bridge project in order to do something everyone agrees should have been done a long time ago,” Fitzpatrick says. “It’s frustrating that because nobody has the political will or voter support to make this a top-priority issue, we are just stuck waiting.”

This year’s herring run, by the way, should begin around April 1. CP