Water, water everywhere - and now a place to put it

Charleston officials arranged to have two city councilmen dropped down a 140-foot hole last week.

Yes, they brought 'em back up. Eventually.

Of course, many Charleston officials probably have wished they could go deep underground over the years - particularly when they were getting rations of grief over the city's nightmarish flooding problems.

Flooding has been a local problem since forever. A good rain at high tide leads to a bad day in Charleston.

Much of the problem has something to do with ye olde ancestors building the city on a peninsula at sea level. Another brilliant move: They then made more real estate by filling in some natural creeks - one at Water Street, another where Market Street is, and yet another along the basic path of the Crosstown highway.

See a pattern here?

Charleston's old stormwater system was ineffective to begin with, and privately some city officials concede that they deserved some flak for taking so long to invest in a fix. But in truth, the city has been working on these problems - and there are a lot of them - since the 1980s.

And it's not cheap. The Crosstown fix is close to the price of an annual city operating budget ($150 million) and the Market Street stormwater tunnel, which council members toured Thursday, is a $26.5 million project.

But Dean Riegel and Marvin Wagner didn't see dollar signs 14 stories beneath the tourist district.

They saw the answer to one of the city's biggest, nagging problems.

Buried treasure

Triad-Midwest Mole has dug more than 1,000 feet of tunnels beneath the city.

When the concrete is poured, these tunnels under Concord and Market streets will be 9 feet in diameter. A series of nearly 6-foot drains will pull water out of the Market at a rate of 40,000 gallons a minute.

We need it.

This new system will put a serious dent in the downtown kayak rental industry, but everyone else should be happy - and dry.

Right now the tunnels look like the set of "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" - they even have a small train to move people around. If this stormwater thing doesn't work out, we could have the beginnings of a subway system or a great water thrill ride. It inspires no shortage of ideas.

"This is really a place to put my political enemies," Riegel joked.

Yeah, you would never think to look for anything this far down into the earth.

Especially not the answer to Charleston's flooding pains.

Is that light?

The tunneling project is ahead of schedule, slated to be done next August.

The city, however, still has to finance another project to connect all the area stormwater drains into the new, bigger pipelines to Middle Earth.

Certainly we need all the capacity we can get. The sight of tourists wading through knee-deep water in the Market probably does little to help our national rankings.

And sandbagging has a way of annoying Market vendors.

For a long time, a lot of people have remained skeptical that Charleston could do anything to fix this problem. One look at this underground project, however, and you see hope - if not light - at the end of the tunnel.

"I'm even more optimistic now that this will mitigate the chronic problem of downtown flooding," Riegel says.

The next - and maybe biggest - problem comes next - the Crosstown. But after seeing the work these crews are doing beneath the historic district, it looks more and more likely that Lake Market and Crosstown Creek will soon be little more than sad chapters in Charleston's history.

And after that? Well, Wagner says, it'll be time to tackle West Ashley.

Amen.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com

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