After years of discussion and study, the Dutch Dialogues research is complete and creates a possible blueprint for Charleston to combat persistent flooding.
Specific findings were made public Thursday, and the city of Charleston has some decisions to make. The report includes new approaches to deal with storm surge, tides, rainfall, drainage, and surface and groundwater flooding. Those ideas include suggested changes in government, business and residential practices.
The research, done through the Dutch Dialogues project, is meant to serve as guiding principles for city leaders and is focused particularly on four flood-prone areas: Johns Island, the medical district, the East Side and West Ashley.
Dutch Dialogues — a research and design program that started in the United States after Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans in 2005 — creates a holistic strategy for how governments should deal with rising seas and flooding and embrace water instead of trying to build against it.
The findings included a July report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration noting that "by 2030, Charleston may experience (high-tide flooding) once a month and once every 10 days or more by 2050."
Dale Morris, director of strategic partnerships at the Water Institute and one of the founders of Dutch Dialogues, said the team thinks Charleston has a chance to do more to mitigate its flood risk.
"We think some difficult policy choices are going to have to be made, but it's not unlike other cities across the coast," Morris said.
Though most of the findings in the 252-page report were presented in July and reaffirms much of the city's ongoing efforts, some new recommendations did emerge:
East Side: Try a maintenance and improvement plan in the neighborhood. Morris said the city should reconsider its public housing there. East Bay Street north of Trident Technical Palmer Campus regularly floods because it was once wetland known as Vardell's Creek. Morris said the city should consider reintroducing that creek. Morris said the city should consider installing stormwater storage under or near city streets when the state Department of Transportation does improvements.
Johns Island: Develop a Watershed Master Plan for the entire island. Elevate evacuation routes and expand the number of flood evacuation centers.
West Ashley: In the suburb and Church Creek basin, the city should develop a plan that includes floodplain improvements, pond retrofits, discharge enhancements and bioswales, among others. Develop water-storage areas for each drainage basin and sub-basin. Morris said that places south of Bees Ferry Road and in the Savannah Highway could store more stormwater. Consider a new West Ashley/Church Creek park-system from the area's remaining phosphate mine.
Medical district: Expand the greenway to Ashley Avenue in the district.
Regionwide: Avoid a man-made surge barrier to protect against hurricanes at this time.
Dutch Dialogues leaders urged the city to slow water, store it and then drain it; develop a master plan; update the city's comprehensive plan; reduce fill; engage private-sector leaders; improve coordination with regional governments; and offer stormwater credits. One example of the Dutch Dialogues' impact was evident this week: City leaders on Wednesday invited residents to learn about rainproofing their properties through a gardening workshop on James Island.
Mayor John Tecklenburg said the city — government and private sector — needs "to make every effort to store water at every level."
Tecklenburg said some of the findings in the report may seem simple, but the development process hasn't welcomed or incorporated that approach in the last century. Tecklenburg said he sees the development recommendations on Johns Island as the most difficult to implement "politically" because it involves policy change for those living certain heights above sea level.
For example, a property owner with land that is 6 feet above sea level, or lower, would be restricted from building there. Right now, property owners have the right to build. Tecklenburg said one solution to that is to create a "transferable development right" approach for Johns Island, so that a property owner who can no longer build on Johns Island because it is too close to the sea level could instead build up a property elsewhere in the city and be allowed to create a more dense space there.
Councilman Marvin Wagner, who represents Charleston residents on Johns Island said he has "zero problem" with the recommendations outlined in the report and that the recommendations for Johns Island, outer West Ashley and Daniel Island are "past due." He said he could see himself supporting a moratorium on development on Johns Island until the Dutch Dialogues guidelines are fully implemented.
Reflecting on the city's work, Tecklenburg said the city could have approached drainage in the Church Creek area differently. Instead of installing a pump, now he thinks the city could have done a "nature-based" approach with retention ponds.
"What excites me is the vision," he said. "There is a vision here. These recommendations include a future where we protect ourselves and still sustain our economic system but we do it in a way that's more dedicated to living with Mother Nature, living with water and not as our enemy."
The report's authors said the Lowcountry should consider long-term planning, like that used in the Netherlands and Louisiana. Details of Louisiana's statewide plan were presented to regional leaders Thursday morning. Invitations were sent to coastal community mayors, members of Gov. Henry McMaster's Floodwater Commission and Charleston city department leaders.
Water Institute of the Gulf President Justin Ehrenwerth said South Carolina, like Louisiana, should develop a statewide and regional plan. He said that over $18 billion in projects were done in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina.
“None of that would have happened without a plan.”
Some of those projects include structural protection, living reefs, barrier islands and marsh creations by diverting rivers, Ehrenwerth said.
Paul Sommerville, a Beaufort County councilman who serves on the flood commission, said that moving forward, it was important that sea-level rise discussion remain outside the political arena. Sommerville, too, believed that while state leaders craft a master plan for South Carolina, that one specific to the Lowcountry area would be beneficial, as well.
Mark Wilbert, the city's Chief Resilience Officer, said the city is well-served by the report that is "vision forward with a lot of rationale." He said city leaders will take the report and try to implement it into the city's sea level strategy and create a list of priorities moving forward.
Nearly 500 people attended a community meeting Thursday night at the Gaillard Center.
Abraham Jenkins, who has lived on the East Side the last year but grew up in Mount Pleasant, said he lives in an area that suffers from drainage issues.
"If they take what we learned, I think it would improve the quality of life and help with traffic, too," Jenkins said.
Caroline Ragsdale, who lives on the lower West Side near Colonial Lake, said she thinks the reports findings are "fabulous" but implementing the recommendations will be a challenge financially.
"I think we can responsibly channel and prioritize," Ragsdale said. "I like the idea of water storage in strategic places on the peninsula. ... I like the idea of using public parks as opportunities to store water."
Cathryn Davis, who has lived on James Island the last six years, said she was excited to hear that natural solutions were included as recommendations for barrier protection. She said she recently learned about bamboo plants helping with flooding, and that she thinks it would be a useful remedy as well.
The report focused on different areas of the city because they pose their own problems. Johns Island and the Church Creek basin have been or will be constrained by land development and land use; the peninsula's East Side and medical district would benefit from drainage, pumps, perimeter protection, flood plain and creek restoration.
Winslow Hastie, President & CEO of Historic Charleston Foundation which was the lead sponsor for the event, said the Dutch Dialogues project should not be considered an "engineered plan" but rather a "vision and framework" for the city. He said the Dutch Dialogues should "act as an umbrella" for the city's projects to be included underneath: the ongoing update to the city's stormwater manual, the Calhoun West and Spring/ Fishburne drainage projects and Johns Island development.
Dutch Dialogues leaders, in the report, said places that created long-term and design plans such as New Orleans, Norfolk, Va., and Bridgeport, Conn., led to a combined $310 million in federal funding.