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Army cites 'credible' threats in defending water restrictions near DC Wharf

The Gangplank Marina and Fort McNair on the Washington Channel. Commercial and recreational boat traffic has grown significantly since The Wharf opened along Washington's Southwest Waterfront three years ago, becoming a destination for visitors arriving by land and water.

EVELYN HOCKSTEIN/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

By LUZ LAZO | The Washington Post | Published: January 28, 2021

WASHINGTON — U.S. Army officials say "credible" threats to military assets on the Southwest Waterfront in Washington warrant new restrictions on water use along Fort McNair near D.C.'s bustling Wharf neighborhood.

The proposed zone that would take up to one-third of the Washington Channel along the base would enhance security of the military installation, Maj. Gen. Omar Jones, commander of the Military District of Washington, told city residents and elected leaders during a virtual meeting Wednesday night.

The request for the restriction, Jones said, follows recent "credible and specific" threats against military leaders who live on the base, and recent security breaches, including one involving a potentially "lost" swimmer who ended up at the Fort McNair shore. Jones offered no other specific threats, but noted a desire to protect the installation from potential electronic surveillance.

"The side of the base along the Washington Channel is where we're most vulnerable," Jones said while addressing opponents of the Army's proposal.

The rule would not restrict watercraft traffic from moving in the zone along the base and would not give additional authority to the federal government to restrict traffic in the channel.

According to the proposal's printed notice in the Federal Register, "all persons, vessels, or other craft are prohibited from anchoring, mooring or loitering within" the proposed restricted area without the permission of the commander of Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall/Fort McNair or designated representatives.

The notice highlights security needs for Marine Helicopter Squadron missions and "protection of VIP quarters." Officers' living quarters can be seen from the water.

The proposed restrictions in the channel, where boat traffic has grown significantly since the 2017 opening of the Wharf neighborhood, has put residents and some of the city's elected leaders in the Southwest Waterfront district at odds with the federal government. Opponents say the restrictions would be an unnecessary overreach.

At the Wednesday meeting, hosted by D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), Jones repeatedly said the rule would broaden the Army's ability to turn to the D.C. Police Harbor Patrol to check on potential threats and suspicious activity off Fort McNair's shores.

But he also acknowledged that Fort McNair, "like any other resident of Ward 6," can call upon Harbor Patrol at any time to respond to suspicious activity near its shoreline. He said the rule would strengthen the relationship between the base and the D.C. police unit.

D.C. police last month declined to comment on the specifics of the proposal, but said the department "continues to work with our local and federal partners to enforce laws on DC waterways." Police didn't immediately respond Wednesday to a request for comment.

Jones' explanation failed to appease those who use the Washington Channel.

"This is an outrageous federal overreach," said Dean Naujoks, of the Potomac Riverkeeper Network, in asking city leaders to seek the D.C. attorney general's response on the legal ramifications of the Army plan. "This is a public resource. It doesn't belong to the Army. The Potomac Riverkeeper Network will not stand for this. We will not tolerate this and allow this to happen."

Guy Shields, a retired Army infantry colonel and member of the Capital Yacht Club, said the proposed restricted zone "is basically a string of floating signs" that probably will keep boaters away while not deterring people seeking to do harm.

At the request of Fort McNair, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — responsible for maintaining the nation's navigable waterways — would put up buoys to mark an area extending about 75 to 150 meters into the channel at different locations. The channel varies in width from about 275 to 330 meters in that location, according to the Corps of Engineers.

Boaters say the marked zone would create unsafe conditions by pushing kayakers and motor boaters into the same confined space as water taxis and river cruise ships. Officials at the Wharf say a restricted zone would disrupt travel and water activities, including popular events such as an annual holiday parade popular at the Wharf — a neighborhood that attracts 10 million visitors annually.

"Those buoys aren't going to do anything to enhance security. It will increase congestion in an already congested area," Shields said. "And I'll say, signs do not stop people with bad intentions."

The Washington Navy Yard and Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling, which also have access to D.C. waters, don't have restricted zones on their shorelines.

Asked by residents what security measures the base has taken on land to address concerns, Jones said the Army has increased patrols, put up more signs indicating the base is a restricted area and enhanced the use of technology, such as cameras.

A security buffer between activity in the water and military operations was preferred over erecting a fence facing the water, Jones said, adding that a fence would not address threats of someone anchoring on the shoreline with electronic surveillance.

"It could be cameras, recording devices, those kind of things that people with bad intent could use from the Washington Channel as they are anchored up the channel," he said.

Asked by D.C. Council member Charles Allen, D-Ward 6, whether a similar, 100-foot buffer should be put in place on the land side, where the only barrier is a wall or fence, Jones said that wouldn't be necessary because if the Army detects a threat or suspicious activity on land, it can call D.C. police.

"Respectfully, General, you can make that call to MPD today," said Allen, whose district includes the Southwest Waterfront and Fort McNair. "These restrictions aren't needed to have MPD be able to respond to suspicious activity [in the water]. I feel very confident law enforcement has a great relationship with you and would take any concerns you have very seriously."

Jones offered one specific recent security threat: A swimmer who ended up on the base and was arrested by base security.

"When it comes to swimmers, I'm sure that must be rare," Norton told Jones. "Did he know where he was? Maybe he was just swimming and found his way to your shore?"

Jones responded, "He may very well have been lost. But either way, he came in and did breach our security and our folks were able to apprehend him." Jones later acknowledged the swimmer example is "not a great example there, but our most recent example" of a breach.

The channel, which parallels the Potomac River, is home to three marinas, and water traffic must pass by Fort McNair to connect to the river. It is used by water taxis, river cruise ships and other private boaters. The channel is also increasingly used for recreation such as kayaking, paddleboarding, sailing and river events that yield tax revenue.

If approved, the restriction would be in place around-the-clock. During events such as the State of the Union address, state funerals, presidential inaugurations and Marine helicopter squadron missions, boating in the area would be prohibited.

Residents had until Thursday to submit comments on the proposal before a decision is finalized. Christopher Fincham, a spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers, last month said responses have been overwhelmingly against establishing the zone.

Allen urged the Army to seek a different approach, saying he is concerned "that the interests of security are starting to creep too much into our public space" and the water restriction could derail progress in getting more District residents to access the water.

"These are our neighbors that use our water, our river, our public space," Allen said. "So I want to be clear that I do not support this taking of the water."