Last month’s record-breaking rainfall is illustrative of the increasingly extreme weather events Charleston, like other areas throughout the world, will continue to experience due to climate change. Stormwater, combined with rising tides, poses a dual threat that, if left unchecked, will pose serious challenges to the long-term sustainability of our region.
Through the Dutch Dialogues process, the city of Charleston, the Historic Charleston Foundation and community partners have engaged national and international water management experts to help us better manage these flooding events. The Dutch, the world’s authority on navigating and overcoming threats posed by flooding, along with a team from Louisiana led by the Water Institute of the Gulf and Waggonner & Ball Architects, are sharing their expertise and working alongside the local community. The caliber of the team is phenomenal and speaks to how well regarded our city is globally.
The goal is to catalyze a fundamental rethinking of Charleston’s relationship with water, transforming flooding and rain from an unmitigated risk into something that can enhance our lives. A major takeaway from our trip to the Netherlands last fall is the need to develop an integrated approach to infrastructure investments in order to accomplish multiple benefits. For example, a berm built to hold back the ocean becomes a celebrated public promenade; a park is designed to serve as water storage during significant rainfall or storm surge; or an expanded road actually improves drainage rather than making it worse.
The city has identified more than $2 billion in flood infrastructure needs, including a rebuild of the Low Battery sea wall and major new infrastructure in the Church Creek drainage basin. The good news is that the Dutch Dialogues methodology — which isn’t a set of prefabricated ideas, but rather locally tailored design solutions — has led to more than $310 million in federal funding for similar projects in New Orleans, Norfolk and Bridgeport, Connecticut.
The city isn’t standing still on the issue and is already seeking to leverage a wide array of funding sources, from federal aid to Charleston County sales tax revenue. At the same time, several concurrent and complementary efforts are underway, including:
Completion of numerous drainage infrastructure projects, such as the Spring/Fishburne tunnel systems, Forest Acres Phase II, Hickory Farms diversion, Ashley Hall Manor and Westwood projects, and city-wide check-valve installations.
Charleston Peninsula Coastal Flood Risk Management Study: A three-year, $3 million Army Corps of Engineers effort investigating potential solutions to address risk to vulnerable populations, property and infrastructure on the peninsula.
All Hazards Vulnerability and Risk Assessment: A year-long city study to identify the areas and assets most at risk from various physical threats including sea-level rise and extreme precipitation. The project will help inform and establish priorities for projects and resources.
Charleston Regional Hazard Mitigation Plan: The city participated in, and FEMA recently approved, the 2019 version of this document intended to highlight various projects that can help to reduce risk through mitigation planning. It will assist in budget and capital projects planning, including identifying specific projects for future federal funding.
City Stormwater Department: The city recently approved a standalone, 10-man stormwater department tasked with overseeing drainage and flood-related projects with an increased focus on maintenance of existing ditches and systems. The city also hired a consulting firm to oversee work related to its stormwater management program.
While each item above is distinct, together they form a comprehensive and cohesive approach for Charleston resilience that will dovetail well with the Dutch Dialogues recommendations. In order to position ourselves to secure the necessary financial resources we have to be organized with a list of priority projects. That requires planning and community dialogue.
The city and region at all levels will need to find opportunities to redirect existing spending and identify new funding sources. Simultaneously, the timing of expenditures must be addressed. While preventative spending is exponentially more cost-effective, 90 percent of federal dollars spent on flooding are allocated to disaster recovery efforts.
The hard truth is that free infrastructure does not exist, but by reorienting thinking and resources, Charleston can successfully take on the flooding challenges that lie ahead.
We invite and encourage you to be informed, to participate in the process and to engage where you can. For updates, a full schedule of public events and to submit your thoughts and ideas, visit www.DutchDialoguesCharleston.org.
John J. Tecklenburg is the mayor of Charleston. Winslow Hastie is president and CEO of Historic Charleston Foundation.