Watch Out For The Ducks! (A Tale of Government Incompetence)

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That governments can do little — if any — good is a belief I suspect most readers of this website (and certainly most of its writers) share. We may not share much else. But that we have in common.

So you don’t need my latest example of absolute government incompetence. You already know government is incompetent. But I think you’ll enjoy this anyway.

I ride my bicycle to work. Nearly every day. Rain or shine. Light or dark. Stifling heat of summer or bitter northwest wind of winter. Eight miles into the District of Columbia from Old Town Alexandria, and eight miles home. Every work day.

(And 30 or 40 miles on weekends, with errands, church and whatnot. My wife and I are not virtuous. We just choose not to own an automobile.)

I’m fortunate to be able to ride a nice, well-kept stretch of the Mt. Vernon Trail that winds along the river from Alexandria, past National Airport and the Pentagon, all the way up to Rosslyn, across the river from Georgetown. (And thank you to all y’all who have paid taxes to maintain this wonderful trail that you’ll probably never, ever use; I’m willing to pay a daily toll for the privilege, but the National Park Service will have none of it.) It’s a lovely ride, even on bad days when the wind from the north makes cycling all that much harder.

There’s a stretch of the trail, just north of Old Town Alexandria, that plows through and then along side a swamp for a bit. The trail in the swamp is wonderful — a wooden boardwalk that sometimes gets a little slick when covered with wet leaves and curves a bit too much if you are riding too fast — but just north of the swamp the bike path tends to flood easily when it rains, creating a nice little extension of the swamp 50 or 60 feet long and sometimes five inches deep. (It’s what you get when you build anything through low-lying land that doesn’t drain well. And a risk you take when you cycle everywhere you go.)

A couple of time’s I’ve hit it too fast soaked both my socks and shoes clear through. Not to bad if I’m going home. Squishy and miserable if I’m on my way to work.

The ducks sure like it, though.

Most cyclists are smarter than I am — they don’t pretend to have amphibious assault bikes and usually ride around the pool, which means taking an extensive detour across wet grass and usually waterlogged soil. But I’m a big, fat bike rider, and I’d rather have solid asphalt underneath me (even flooded by four inches of swamp water) than mud. Any day.

Being as this is a federal bike path (also used by walker, joggers, and most annoyingly, Rollerbladers), on exquisitely manicured federal land (the path runs parallel to the George Washington Parkway), it is the responsibility of the U.S. National Park Service. I rarely see them out doing much except mowing the grass — bikes don’t do much damage to asphalt or wooden bridges — and occasionally trimming trees.

But someone — a lot of someones, I’m guessing — complained about the flooding. And the Park Service, ever valiant in their service to the cycling and jogging public, decided to do something.

I don’t know the exact process the Park Service went through to examine the problem and craft a solution. Perhaps engineers came out, took measurements, analyzed findings, wrote a report and made recommendations. Maybe even meetings were held. (!!!) Or maybe it was much simpler than that: someone in an office said "do something, anything" and a couple of guys in a pickup truck were dispatched to the scene, looked at it for a few minutes and decided to get some dirt. Whatever the process, someone somewhere at the Park Service concluded that the best way to stop the flooding was to build a dike to hold back the raging waters of the swamp during rainstorms.

So late last week, and early this week, a crew of really nice Park Service workers — complete with a half-a-dozen traffic cones to block the bike path and let us all know well ahead of time that men were hard at work — came with a truck full of nice rocky sand and built a beautiful little levy over the course of three days.

Three days.

(Okay, anyone who sees what’s coming next please keep it to yourself and let the others enjoy the story.)

On my ride home Thursday (it had been raining all day; not hard, but constantly), after I passed Four Mile Run and wound my way south around the marina, I hit it — a giant pool of water maybe eight inches deep and longer than anything I’d ever seen there. Much, much, much longer.

Thanks to the valiant efforts of the U.S. Park Service, instead of a 50-foot-long pool of brackish swamp water that drains properly after a day or two, there is now a 90-foot-long and much deeper pool of foul smelling water that likely won’t drain at all thanks to the dike. Way to go, Park Service! Thank you very, very much!

The ducks still like it, though. There is nothing quite like hitting a giant body of water at 15 miles per hour several hours after sunset and scattering mallards every which way. I ought to be careful, though, because those are federal mallards, and I suspect running one over with an amphibious assault bike can probably earn me several years hard time in a federal supermax and a stunningly large fine I couldn’t afford to pay.

I thought about complaining, but quickly realized there’s simply no point. Any complaint I’d make about incompetence would probably be taken the wrong way. (I never minded the water! It only aggravates me now because it’s worse!) My congresscrittur, the ethically challenged Jim Moran, would likely take it as a request to do something, and would somehow get the whole task turned over to the Army Corps of Engineers. Which would then build an extravagant structure of concrete and steel that would hugely exceed its budget, be used by very few people, fail to keep the water back, and probably collapse in a few years anyway.

So I won’t bother telling the government it messed up. They wouldn’t listen. Besides, I don’t have time right now. I’ve got to go wring my socks out.

Charles H. Featherstone [send him mail] is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist specializing in energy, the Middle East, and Islam. He lives with his wife Jennifer in Alexandria, Virginia.

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