Environmental Review Toolkit
Water, Wetlands, and Wildlife

Woodrow Wilson Bridge Project in Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia: Environmental Stewardship at its Best

Recycled bridge debris created fish reefs like this one at Cedar Point in the lower Pawtuxet River. Photo by Woodrow Wilson Bridge Project.
"Recycled" bridge debris created fish reefs like this one at Cedar Point in the lower Pawtuxet River. Photo by Woodrow Wilson Bridge Project.

This photo shows the opening of the inner loop span of the new bridge. Photo by Woodrow Wilson Bridge Project.
This photo shows the opening of the inner loop span of the new bridge. Photo by Woodrow Wilson Bridge Project.
This photo is a view of the new bridge from Virginia to Maryland. Photo by Woodrow Wilson Bridge Project.
This photo is a view of the new bridge from Virginia to Maryland. Photo by Woodrow Wilson Bridge Project.

Construction crews used the old bridge as a 'trestle' to build the inner loop span of the new bridge, eliminating the need for dredging and saving more than 5 acres of impact to the river. Photo by Woodrow Wilson Bridge Project.
Construction crews used the old bridge as a "trestle" to build the inner loop span of the new bridge, eliminating the need for dredging and saving more than 5 acres of impact to the river. Photo by Woodrow Wilson Bridge Project.

A bridge over troubled water? Hardly. In their venture to replace the Potomac River's deteriorating Woodrow Wilson Bridge and four contributing interchanges, the partners in the massive construction project went far beyond environmental business as usual to launch new ways of preserving and improving the river's ecosystem and reducing negative impacts to nearby resources.

To manage construction with maximum care and efficiency, the project sponsors from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), the Maryland State Highway Administration, and the Virginia and District of Columbia Departments of Transportation worked with a general engineering consulting firm to set up three project management teams—a leadership team, a mitigation team, and a construction inspection team. Project staff developed a permit tracking database to enforce nearly 1,400 conditions and impact limits from more than 50 permits. These commitments were incorporated into project design before construction contracts were advertised. Public acclaim for these conscientious efforts and particular environmental innovations won the project multiple Globe Awards for Environmental Excellence from the American Road and Transportation Builders Association.

Demolishing a pre-existing bridge and building a higher, 12-lane drawbridge beside the existing bridge could have resulted in long-term environmental damage. Careful management and documentation on the Woodrow Wilson Bridge project prevented such a negative consequence. For example, turbidity, pH levels, and other water quality measurements were recorded every 15 minutes at six monitoring stations along the river. According to millions of data points collected over 8 years, bridge construction activities did not impact water quality.

Aquatic habitat fared well, too. Midway through the project, a temporary haul road was negotiated, designed, and built on National Park Service land to access the old, abandoned bridge. The haul road offered construction crews drive-up access to a critical staging area on the old bridge. This eliminated the need for dredging, and so 5 acres of submerged aquatic vegetation were protected using this land-based approach.

An innovative air bubble curtain was used during construction of the bridge foundations. As 900 piles—each one 4 to 6 feet in diameter and up to 210 feet in length—were driven into the stiff clays deep beneath the Potomac, the piles were surrounded by a shield of bubbles. This reduced the impact of underwater sound pressure waves on nearby fish. The technique was so successful it was replicated on other large transportation projects throughout the country.

From the beginning, sponsors of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge Project planned on extending the project's benefits beyond the construction site. More than 50,000 tons of concrete and steel from the pre-existing bridge were "recycled" into 5 major fish reefs within the Chesapeake Bay and lower Potomac River. One of these reefs—Point-No Point—is 10 feet high and larger in area than two football fields. Another reef called "The Gooses" restored a popular fishing spot at the mouth of the Little Choptank River that was formerly silted in. Reports from divers suggest that the reefs are already teaming with tunicates, barnacles, clams, crabs, rock fish, and other aquatic species.

A fish ladder at Pierce Mill Dam in Washington, D.C.'s Rock Creek allows millions of fish to swim to spawning habitat upstream. Photo by Woodrow Wilson Bridge Project
A fish ladder at Pierce Mill Dam in Washington, D.C.'s Rock Creek allows millions of fish to swim to spawning habitat upstream. Photo by Woodrow Wilson Bridge Project.

The reef projects were met with enthusiastic community support, and the extra cost of placing the bridge debris at the reef locations instead of in a landfill was paid for with funds raised by the community. The funds came from the Coastal Conservation Association's "Buy a Ton of Reef" program and similar sources. The project also won support from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, which launched the state's Artificial Reef Initiative, a consortium of government agencies, businesses, and foundations interested in expanding the use of recycled material in created reefs.

The project launched a 5-year program to restore fish passage in Washington, DC's, Rock Creek Park that will constitute mitigation for the unavoidable impacts during the bridge construction. For more than a century, river herring had made their way up the Chesapeake Bay and the Potomac River only to be stopped on their journey upstream by a dam at historic Peirce Mill on Rock Creek. The mitigation project built a fish ladder at the Pierce Mill dam site so that the herring could cross the dam, resting in pools between each step.

'George'-the project's male resident eagle, lands on a Rosalie Island nest tree. Photo by Stephanie Spears.
"George"—the project's male resident eagle—lands on a Rosalie Island nest tree. Photo by Stephanie Spears.

In all, 23 human-made fish passage barriers have been removed in area creeks, opening up more than 25 miles of potential spawning habitat to migrating fish (including more than 13 million herring fry donated by the project). The fish passage restoration used natural looking stone structures that were innovative and not historically used in urban settings. Local middle and high school students will soon learn about the program in a specially designed environmental curriculum.

In 2001, the project purchased land slated for development and created an 84-acre wildlife and bald eagle sanctuary that is more than eight times larger than is required by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In 1998, two bald eagles affectionately named "George" and "Martha" were first discovered in a nest in the adjacent Betty Blume Park, where they stayed until a windstorm knocked down their nest. The eagles relocated to Smoot's Cove, only 100 feet from active construction activity. Undaunted, the pair produced 15 eaglets. Nearly a dozen eagles believed to be the descendants of George and Martha visit the bridge site each fall during southern migration, and one pair is showing interest in the nest.

As part of its $65 million mitigation program, the Woodrow Wilson Bridge Project began an aggressive effort to excavate a historic landfill on the Maryland bank of the Anacostia River. Project crews placed material in a newly constructed landfill and built 20 acres of high-value tidal wetlands in the traces of the old unauthorized landfill. This effort will increase the amount of tidal wetlands within the Anacostia River System by 20 percent. The project has also reforested 140 acres and created approximately 60 acres of tidal and non-tidal wetlands along Potomac tributaries in both rural and urban settings. Wetlands and a riparian area for bald eagle habitat have also been preserved, and four more acres of tidal wetlands will be created within the Route 1 Interchange in Alexandria, Virginia.

All these environmental benefits might not have happened if the lack of suitable options for disposing of dredged material had not threatened the start of the project. When a potential site was finally located next to the historic Shirley Plantation within an old gravel mine on the James River in Virginia, project staff worked with the landowner to design, permit, and build a proper dredged material placement facility. Within hours of completion, the first barges arrived with their heavy cargo of Potomac River mud. Three years later, they returned with 100,000 cubic yards of emergency dredging material required after Tropical Storm Isabel. Only 1 year after the 52-acre site had been filled with dredged material and farmed, it produced one of the highest corn yields in the state during a record drought.

An annual Earth Day clean-up sponsored by the Woodrow Wilson Bridge Project allows staff and community to work side by side to remove trash from the local wetlands. In the process, participants learn about other ways they can reduce their ecological footprint. Consistently proactive and diligent efforts of the project's public relations team keep local print and broadcast media informed, so that the public will continue to learn the latest about the project's exemplary environmental stewardship.

For more information contact: Mike Baker, bakerm@wwbgec.com

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