I’m worried about the Tidal Basin. As its taxpaying owners, you too should worry.
Surely you remember the Tidal Basin? Martin Luther King Jr., stares reproachfully across its waters at Thomas Jefferson.
One dark night in 1974, when public shame still was a thing, it memorably was the scene of our last national political sex scandal worthy of the name — Bill and Monica’s pathetic disportment aside.
Rep. Wilbur Mills, D-Ark., 65, was a circumspect, married, presidential and Supreme Court aspirant. Chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, Mills held in his hands not only the keys to the nation’s treasury but also the stripper Fanne Foxe, 38, Argentinian, married mother of three.
When police stopped the congressman’s vehicle for driving erratically without lights, Fanne bolted and plunged, screaming, into the Tidal Basin. Fished out and handcuffed, she was transported to an insane asylum for evaluation. The intoxicated Wilbur, face scratched and bleeding, was escorted home.
This is America. Rebranded the “Tidal Basin Bombshell,” the winsome Fanne raised her weekly fees from $500 to $3,500, then improved her mind by earning master’s degrees in both marine science and business administration.
Career ruined, Wilbur left politics and dried out. Rumor had him ruminating darkly on the folly of “drinking with foreigners.”
Today the Tidal Basin is the scene of less lurid but far more perplexing drama. It’s not only flooding, it’s sinking. And that’s hardly the worst of it.
Something’s gone awry in the watery understory upon which our nation’s federal office buildings, museums and memorials to itself are built.
Our national capital is at risk of mind-boggling flooding.
The National Museum of American History could, worst case scenario, be under 16 feet of water; the IRS, Department of Justice and National Archives under 15 feet, says the Army Corps of Engineers. The Washington Monument — how to put this? — may become our answer to the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Or worse.
Our capital is built on drained swampland and compacted fill. It’s riddled with zombie underground creeks that long ago were trifled with, paved over and forgotten.
The District of Columbia historically has flooded after rain. However, it rains much more fiercely nowadays. We’re learning to accept massive flooding as payout on investments in a fossil-fueled economy.
D.C.’s zombie waterways cannot absorb all this rain. They spew up water and raw sewage into people’s toilets and shower drains, and pop off street manhole covers, flooding neighborhoods with sewage. Sixteen thousand homes are at flood risk.
D.C. officials claim to be preparing a remedy. Regrettably, their plan is a secret, not to be shared with the Washington Post, which recently explored the murky bottom of the catastrophic flood threat facing our nation’s capital from intensified rainfall and sea level rise.
But our business in D.C. does not lie with the plight of its flood-abused residents. It lies on The Mall, where the nation’s museums and monuments rest, their massive weights borne up by poorly understood aquifers and waterways lurking underneath, and in the adjoining, often flood-evacuated Federal Triangle between the Capitol and White House, where government functionaries heroically struggle to keep America great.
Taxpayers’ potential stranded asset risk in the low-lying Federal Triangle area alone includes 39 critical facilities worth nearly $14 billion, the Post informs.
Hard clay and compressed soil form a pressurized cushion that encases the aquifer that helps hold up buildings on The Mall, the Post also reveals.
But in 2012, Derek Ross, the Smithsonian Museum’s head of construction, saw something alarming at the bottom of the hole that would become the foundation for the National Museum of African American History and Culture: it was filling with water.
The critical aquifer cushion looked to be collapsing, and Ross worried that the Washington Monument, 800 feet away, would shift, or, worse, topple over, he recounted to the Post. When he closed his eyes, Ross said, he saw a sinkhole.
The fix required pumping water back into the aquifer and an extra $20 million for waterproofing the museum.
Meanwhile, the famed cherry trees lining the adjoining Tidal Basin are drowning, starved twice each day of oxygen because the polluted high-tide water in the basin has risen four feet over the past century — one foot from rising seas and three feet from its sinking foundation, according to the Post.
Cherry trees gone
After their final blooming this spring, 300 cherry trees will vanish from the Tidal Basin, felled to raise the basin’s sea wall nearly five feet; add $112 million.
Planning an overdue inspection tour of your federal properties? Bring a life preserver.
“If an overtopping with breach event occurs, loss of life is likely expected” — tourists, bureaucrats — in the Federal Triangle, with flooding more than 15 feet deep, the corps warns.
“The bulwark against national disaster in the Federal Triangle is a $3.8 million portable aluminum levee whose 35 disassembled parts each weigh about four tons and must be assembled by hand,” the Post explains.
Assembly requires two hours. The levee is stored five miles away.
However, this lifesaving contraption cannot be deployed during flash floods because the National Park Service requires two to four days notice before it is emplaced.
Moreover, no one knows who’s responsible for issuing the emergency order to deploy it. The corps points to the park service; the park service points to the corps.
Solveig Torvik is a former Washington, D.C., resident.