A campaign to preserve the tidal basin launched April 3, as the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Trust for the National Mall plan to collaborate in response to rising sea levels and heavy foot traffic that threaten the basin’s longevity.
The campaign, “Save the Tidal Basin,” invites proposals for new initiatives to improve the basin’s condition. The campaign is establishing the National Mall Tidal Basin Ideas Lab, a platform for architectural and landscape design firms to present their plans to protect the basin.
The tidal basin, an inlet between the Potomac River and Washington Channel, was initially built in 1887 as a means of harnessing the tides to flush sediment from the channel and maintain water levels in the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, according to the Library of Congress. Increased tourism in D.C. and climate change-connected flooding threaten its future, though, according to the campaign.
American Express, a financial services company, sponsored the $750,000 brainstorming campaign that has been in progress for the past three years. It asks for design firms to propose solutions to five specific challenges facing the site: security, circulation, hydrology, cultural landscape and visitor experience.
Despite rapid city development in Washington, D.C., the sea wall surrounding the basin has undergone few renovations since its construction, according to CBS News. In light of climate change, however, officials are looking beyond simple maintenance for long-term, sustainable solutions.
During high tide, flood waters rise over the sidewalks surrounding the tidal basin. Over time, this compromises the roots of the cherry trees planted along its banks, creating muddy and uneven walking conditions that pose safety and accessibility challenges to visitors, according to CBS News. Despite being man-made, the tidal basin is connected to the Potomac, making it as susceptible to changes in sea levels as natural bodies of water. This flooding is currently a daily occurrence and is expected to increase in frequency as sea levels continue to rise, according to the National Trust for Historic Places.
D.C. residents and visitors should understand the potential impact of climate change, both on water sources and the economy, according to Shelby Gresch (SFS ’22), head of recycling for the Georgetown Renewable Energy Environmental Network.
“Rising (and warming) seas cause upstream salinization in deltas and tidal basins, create uninhabitable conditions for many aquatic species, increase magnitude and frequency of natural disasters, and consequently harm the economy,” Gresch wrote in an email.
The area around the basin is suffering further damage from increased foot traffic, as its walkways are too narrow for visitors, according to The Washington Post. Consequently, visitors tread on the roots of cherry trees — which already face harm from brackish flood water.
The tidal basin, home to thousands of the District’s iconic cherry trees, is visited by 36 million people each year — it is the most-visited national park — and development projects could total up to $500 million, according to the Trust for the National Mall. Officials say it is too early, however, to estimate the cost or say what departments will pay, according to The Washington Post.
Underfunding of the National Park Service’s annual maintenance budget worsens the effects of climate change, according to the NTHP. The park service requested $393,469 for facility maintenance for fiscal year 2020, $18,153 less than in fiscal year 2019.
In addition to underfunding, previous efforts to address the park service’s $11.9 billion maintenance backlog have not been successful. This included an attempt during the 115th Congress to pass legislation to raise maintenance funds, according to National Parks Traveler, but Congress adjourned without a final decision. Although similar bills have been presented in the current Congress, no funds have been dedicated to maintenance.
Without definitive action, private philanthropy continues to provide the majority of support for initiatives like the Ideas Lab, according to the National Parks Traveler.
Restoring the tidal basin, which is 107 acres and 10-feet deep, may be the largest-scale project the Trust for the National Mall has ever taken on, according to the National Parks Traveler. The Trust for the National Mall has led several past restoration projects, including a 2014 campaign to restore Constitution Gardens, a 2018 initiative to replace the Lincoln Memorial Roof and recent work to refurbish the Washington Monument and the historic lockkeeper’s house.