Persistent flooding of National Mall's deteriorating Tidal Basin could endanger famed cherry blossom trees

By Kevin Byrne, AccuWeather staff writer
April 14, 2019, 6:04:24 AM EDT

The appealing sight of cherry blossoms lining the edges of the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C., is one of the true signals of spring's arrival in the eastern United States.

Each year from March into April, the National Cherry Blossom Festival takes place around the peak of the bloom. About 1.5 million visitors converge on the National Mall within a three-week period to gaze upon the approximately 3,800 trees tinged with pink and white petals.

However, in recent years, issues related to the Tidal Basin’s infrastructure, such as a crumbling sea wall, have mounted and threaten to compromise visitor experiences as well as the health of the trees. Officials say efforts must be taken to help resolve these complex preservation issues.

During high tide, floodwaters from the 107-acre tidal basin spill onto the sidewalk and block off the walkways. The water also reaches the trees, which could threaten their long-term health.

tidal basin ap

Part of the sidewalk near the Jefferson Memorial is covered in water during high tide at the Tidal Basin in Washington, Wednesday, April 3, 2019. (AP Photo/Ashraf Khalil)

Earlier this month, a new conservation campaign called "Save the Tidal Basin" was launched to preserve and revitalize the area. The National Trust for Historic Preservation is helping lead the effort along with the National Park Service (NPS) and the Trust for the National Mall.

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“Walkways surrounding the Tidal Basin are flooded at high tide on a daily basis, making them impassible for visitors and impacting the roots of the cherry trees,” according to a press release from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. “Other issues include perimeter safety challenges, substandard visitor facilities and inadequate interpretation—repairs and improvements that could cost as much as $500 million to address.”

“During inclement weather, conditions are even worse; the edge of the sidewalk is indistinguishable from the deeper waters in the basin,” according to the Trust for the National Mall website. “This flooding is expected to grow more severe in coming years as sea level rise causes increasingly high tides.”

tidal basin walkway crack

(Photo by Sam Kittner/National Trust for Historic Preservation)

The groups also point to inadequate funding of the park service's maintenance budget as another factor.

“As part of ‘America’s front yard,’ the Tidal Basin is home to some of the most iconic landmarks and traditions in the nation’s capital,” Katherine Malone-France, interim chief preservation officer of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, said in a statement. “Yet current conditions do not do justice to a landscape of such significance. We are excited to bring new energy, innovation and resources to the revitalization of the Tidal Basin to ensure it continues to delight and inspire audiences from all over the world for generations to come.”

The amount of visitors to the area has also taken a toll, the Associated Press reported. Sean Kennealy, the chief of professional services for the National Mall and Memorial Parks division, told the AP that the basin's original 1880s design did not account for the amount of foot traffic that now occurs.

“People have started making their own paths through the grass because the walkways are either not wide enough or underwater,” Kennealy said. “The trees just aren’t being protected the way they should be.”

About 36 million people visit the National Mall annually.

It was built in the 1800s as a way to harness the power of the tides from the Potomac and flush silt and sediment from the Washington Channel, keeping it navigable, the NPS states. The need for the basin arose in the wake of a disastrous flood that devastated the Washington area and left much of the southern part of the city only accessible by boat, according to the Trust for the National Mall.

According to the NPS, 250 million gallons of water from the Potomac River enter the Tidal Basin through the inlet gates twice a day.

tidal basin flooding

(Photo by Sam Kittner/National Trust for Historic Preservation)

In addition to flooding of the tidal basin, climate change has already been linked to earlier peak bloom dates of the cherry blossoms in recent years.

“We are grateful to have the Trust for the National Mall and the National Trust spearhead this effort to ensure the Tidal Basin is dramatically improved and protected for years to come,” Jeff Reinbold, acting superintendent for the National Mall and Memorial Parks division of the National Park Service, said in a statement.

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