Emily Pearce and Tula O’Connor had just a few hours to squeeze in a quick walk around the National Mall Tidal Basin on the afternoon of Nov 9, after attending meetings all morning. They flew from England to D.C. for a 24-hour work trip.
At first, they were captivated by the sunny November day, and majesty of the Jefferson Memorial, but when they looked closer, they said they saw muddy banks and flooded walkways all around.
Teresa Durkin, the Executive Vice President at the Trust for the National Mall, told The Wash, the Basin is in trouble.
“Despite its storied place in the national imagination, the Tidal Basin is very much at risk,” she said. “Land subsidence, daily flooding, dying cherry trees, and crumbling infrastructure threaten its future.”
Pearce and O’Connor are among millions of visitors that flock to D.C’s Tidal Basin each year. The Basin is home to some of the most iconic landmarks in Washington D.C., including the Thomas Jefferson Memorial, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial and The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. It’s also the site of the famous Cherry Blossom Festival each year.
The Tidal Basin, created in 1881 by the Army Corps of Engineers, is designed to flush sediment from the Washington Channel using the power of the tides.
To some extent, the Tidal Basin overflows every day. Seri Worden, the Senior Field Director at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, told The Wash, climate change and rising sea levels have exacerbated the problem.
Worden said rising sea levels have also impacted the famous cherry trees around the Basin because the trees can’t absorb the overflow of saltwater. Visitors walking around the park also unknowingly squash the tree roots, which slowly kills them. She said the ground around the Basin is structurally unsound and unable to handle the large crowds of visitors each year.
The Tidal Basin’s vulnerability was tossed back into the spotlight when major flooding hit the D.C area on October 29th, 2021. As a result of heavy rainfall, water overflowed into the Basin parking lot and shut down most of the walkways around the park.
A few more photos from the flooding yesterday at the Tidal Basin. pic.twitter.com/1ewwdlrKSa
— StephenVoss (@StephenVoss) October 30, 2021
Worden told The Wash, the flooding is only going to become worse and more frequent.
“If we don’t do something comprehensive and long term, we could lose the very essence of the Tidal Basin within a couple decades,” she said.
Anthony Natoli traveled from Florida to see the monuments, and was alarmed by the flooding he witnessed.
“You can see where the water level has risen very high. There’s some areas that are almost impossible to navigate. It’s such a beautiful sight,” he said. “I think it would be a shame to not be able to continue to enjoy it.”
In 2019, the National Trust for Historic Preservation put the Tidal Basin on its top-11 list of America’s most endangered landmarks. Out of that list, the “Save The Tidal Basin” campaign was born.
Under the campaign, the National Trust for Historic Preservation teamed up with the Trust for the National Mall to help fund a three-year design project called the Tidal Basin Ideas Lab. The project brought together five prominent American landscape architecture firms, who collaborated to create a master design plan to address the Basin’s major problems.
Durkin said their work explored creative ways the landscape and systems could be reimagined.
The designers worked to, “expand our collective understanding of how public landscapes can evolve and adapt,” she said.
In October 2020, the Ideas Lab curated an online exhibition to engage the public and collect feedback on design proposals for the Tidal Basin.
But since the online exhibition was launched, nothing concrete has changed.
Worden told The Wash, the Ideas Lab was meant to come up with a master plan, one that could fix the Basin’s fundamental problems for future generations. Worden described the project as “ a bold, innovative, wild plan, totally unconstrained by formal processes.”
According to the Tidal Basin Ideas Lab proposals, the master plan could include the addition of a bridge for visitors, creating new wetlands around the park, and even the construction of a natural protective levee along the Potomac.
So, while the master design plan sits on the back-burner and continues to develop, Worden said the National Park Service is getting ready to start major emergency repairs of the Tidal Basin’s seawalls in 2022.
Worden said just the seawall reconstruction budget is between $500-$600 million.
“It’s kind of an emergency Band-Aid initiative,” she said.
While seawall repairs will hopefully prevent short-term flooding, Worden said the Trust would continue to work with the National Park Service to “encourage adoption of major themes from the Ideas Lab, when the Park Service does their official master plan.”
Worden also said the Trust would continue public awareness efforts to “encourage feedback and input for the Tidal Basin and on the realities of climate change.”
Visitors like Lotte Lipien said they hope this master plan will be realized sooner rather than later.
“It was difficult to navigate certain parts of the path. And, you know, the monuments are so beautiful… it would just be nice to have everything be accessible,” she said.
O’Connor told The Wash she hopes the master plan won’t overbuild the Tidal Basin and preserve the natural look of it.
D.C resident Megan Missner agreed.
“Historically, these are beautiful places to come and learn, ” she said. “It’s such a natural part of the city to come and walk around and be at peace with. I think if you don’t have that as a part of the city, you lose some of the appeal.”
Worden said those concerns are exactly what the master plan is working to address.
“There is a challenge in interpreting and thinking about what memorials are, or how they’re interpreted, and ensuring that all Americans see themselves in this place that is purportedly representative of “American ideals,” she said
Durkin said they would continue to work towards a long-term solution to preserve the Basin for generations to come.
“Change is inevitable and climate change is already here,” she said. “Resilience, adaptability, and evolution are the key principles to embrace at this time in history.”