Flood-prone Tidal Basin: DC’s most beloved and threatened pink park needs the TLC.

A new day, another update from a very, very recent post.  I don’t normally do this, but it’s been a very busy month, so it’s tougher for me to devote the time to five entirely new topics.  Barely a week has passed since I covered the travails of old Stumpy, the Yoshino cherry tree at DC’s Tidal Basin that is living on borrowed time.  It’s already “mostly dead”, after years of soil depletion and over saturation; water from the tides rise above the existing infrastructure twice daily.  But even though it probably only has a few more years of viable life, the curator of the Tidal Basin—the National Park Service (NPS)—is taking down Stumpy later this spring, along with about 150 other cherry trees, all as part of a massive rehabilitation project on the sinking, depleting sea wall.  And my previous photo series focused more on the beauty of the cherry trees at their peak bloom; now that the flowering has subsided, it’s interesting to explore the flood-prone nature of much of the Tidal Basin, which in itself prompts this massive rehabilitation effort.  On a quieter day, after the waters have receded, it’s easy to see.

The cherry blossoms are past their peak.  An unseasonably warm February coaxed the pink petals out sooner than usual this year.  Then, almost as soon as the blossoms bloomed, mid and late March took a cooler turn, with nights consistently dipping below freezing, combined with light rains that rarely involved strong winds.  These factors have, in turn, extended the life of the cherry trees beyond the usual ten days.  They’re not as breathtaking as they were during my previous post, but this past Tuesday they still generated a muted but potent effect.  Not quite as rosy, the blossoms have assumed a dowdy, brownish, almost dirty look.  But out-of-town visitors who lack a before/after comparison are still pretty impressed.  Meanwhile, the rest of us can focus on all the evidence of the Tidal Basin’s flood-prone nature.

The worst area is just out of sight in the photo below, just to the west and southwest of the Jefferson Memorial.

In the previous week’s photo, I captured the evidence where the lapping tides have most obviously compromised the sea wall.  This time around, the puddles on an otherwise rain-free day made it obvious exactly how badly the waters surge past their banks.

Flood-prone conditions at DC's Tidal Basin

One can easily imagine what high tide would look like; none of these visiting school-age students could traipse around where they are standing.

I’ve tried to outline on a map where these conditions are most pronounced, in purple.

Over time, it is inevitable that repeated saturation fundamentally changes the composition of the soil, giving it a different character than it had many decades ago, before successive patterns of water intrusion lapped away the more friable components, leaving a denser, damper mass with, I would imagine, much inferior percolation rates.  So the deteriorated conditions on this portion of the Tidal Basin that make it so flood-prone are both exogenous (the water intrusion) and endogenous (the shift in character of the soil).  Give it enough time, and different flora will grow than in the less flood-prone portions, those more likely to thrive in wetlands.  But the Tidal Basin is a human-engineered landform eliminating and precluding the return of the DC’s marshy origins.  The area in the above photo almost certainly depicts land that will require significant repair and an uprooting of the visible cherry trees.

But that’s not the only serious element impacted by the flood-prone land on this part of the Tidal Basin.

Flood-prone conditions threaten the Jefferson Memorail

Just beyond on the wall on the right side of this photo is the Jefferson Memorial, benefiting from the final phase of significant improvements to both its disabled accessibility and the exhibition space.  But the saturated soil is precariously close to the west side of the memorial, suggesting that, just as the scaffolding and construction walls come down around the Memorial’s structural base and plinth, new barriers will restrict pedestrian access on the fragile lands which, if left unattended, will eventually erode and force the waters of the Tidal Basin to encroach on ground that that keeps the Memorial from toppling over.

Hyperbolic though such a notion might be, it underlies the importance of the NPS’s efforts, even though they will require the removal of 150 cherry trees, many of them likely captured in the panorama below.

The pedestrian experience will improve over the long run.  Puddles in the pathway may seem insignificant, but they aren’t likely to get better over time if left unaddressed.

Flood-prone conditions at DC's Tidal Basin
Flood-prone conditions at DC's Tidal Basin

One can imagine what a particularly bad tidal surge might have looked like, which I expect was the case on the day I took these photos.  I run around the Tidal Basin fairly frequently, and I’ve never seen such saturation on an otherwise bone-dry day.

Flood-prone conditions at DC's Tidal Basin

It appears that the flood-prone area is flat enough that waters lap over the pedestrian path at times.  One can only imagine what all these visitors would have to do if this portion of the Tidal Basin circumference remained underwater for significant durations.

Flood-prone conditions at DC's Tidal Basin

Returning to Stumpy-land (just a hundred feet or so away from the preceding photos), the sea wall around here looks comparatively intact.

But the photo above is a false flag; it is not Stumpy!  It is another Yoshino cherry suffering a condition similar to Stumpy but not quite as far advanced.  It is slightly less “mostly dead”, so Stumpy steals the spotlight.  But the number of trees facing Stumpy-like conditions is only going to grow, given the flood-prone character across a broad swathe of land, including areas where the sea wall remains in ostensibly good shape.

The Tidal Basin as a whole is better at offering macro-lavel views and view sheds, where landmarks protrude from among the foliage of trees or blossoms, while simultaneously looming over their own reflections in placid waters.  Visitors to the parks of Washington DC (and to the city’s main institutional attractions) come for these sweeping vistas more than to home in on details.  This tendency helps explain why, in the photo below, people are prone to overlooking the what a serious threat the increasingly flood-prone soil poses on those same postcard-perfect views.  We’re all so charmed by the pink petals flanking Classical architecture that we don’t even notice the mud.  A $100+ million investment from the National Park Service will force a little bit more awareness.  But I still suspect most people will just feel inconvenienced that all this construction equipment is impinging on their selfies.

Flood-prone conditions at DC's Tidal Basin

Who can blame them?  Flood-prone or not, from the right angle, it looks terrific.

Just don’t zoom in too close.

Like this.

Come on; stop it now.

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6 thoughts on “Flood-prone Tidal Basin: DC’s most beloved and threatened pink park needs the TLC.

    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      I personally love the look of the craggy, angry bald cypress. Really grew to appreciate them when I lived in Louisiana. But I’d agree: they certainly don’t evoke elegance or serenity like the cherry tree…or 1980s anime for that matter.

      Even people who don’t know the cypress by name tend to know their association with swamp land. And besides, DC’s residents have tried to eliminate the swampy conditions for over 200 years (more successful literally than metaphorically).

      Reply
      1. Chris B

        Eh, one might say that DC merely replaced its literal swamp with its metaphorical one.

        I too am a fan of bald cypress, and note that they are native to both our home state (albeit the swampy southwest corner) and the Virginia Tidewater, making them a lot more “native” than Japanese cherries. But they probably belong on the river side of the parkland, not where they would obscure the City Beautiful vistas.

        Reply
        1. AmericanDirt Post author

          I can’t ever recall ever seeing a cypress in Indiana, but I believe you. Then again, I haven’t spent much time in that part of Indiana during the time in my life when I could identify a cypress by sight And, looking at a generic map of bald cypress distribution, it appears primarily to be concentrated in Posey County; maybe if I had looked harder during my brief visit to New Harmony, I would have seen one.

          Even for those who don’t really know the cypress by its most defining feature–those gravity-defying “knees”–the very sight of them in an urban setting would convey “swamp” to many people, for which conservations are still working to eliminate a centuries-old stigma, to the point that I believe “wetlands” is in many respects a relatively recently conceived euphemism for marsh and swamp.

          If a bald cypress were to sprout around the Tidal Basin, I have no doubt that NPS would destroy it in no time.

          Reply

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