Writing often can be improved after the writer leaves a draft alone for a time and returns to it with fresh eyes. Designing a $1 billion-plus barrier to protect peninsular Charleston from future storms and rising seas likely will benefit from the same deliberate approach.
So we have no misgivings about the fact that Charleston's public discussions with the Army Corps of Engineers regarding a perimeter protection project have hit a months-long lull. After the Corps' project dominated most of the city's discussion last year, our civic focus has moved on to the different (but somewhat related) debate over the redevelopment of Union Pier.
But it's important to keep two things in mind: The peninsula needs more protection if it is going to remain a viable place to live, work and play in the decades to come and our work on this project — including its important environmental, recreational and social benefits — will resume in the months to come.
There are four steps to protecting downtown, and the first one — assessing whether a project is financially feasible and ensuring the federal government will pick up 65% of its cost — is already done. The city and the Corps are now negotiating a contract for preliminary engineering and design work, the second step, and it's taking a while because City Hall is wisely seeking a special agreement that will clarify its requirements and goals.
The design phase is critical because if it’s not done right, if the proposed design for the perimeter protection amounts to little more than a concrete wall, there won’t be a construction phase. Nor should there be. The city is seeking an agreement that clarifies its rights to propose aesthetic, recreational, nature-based elements to the project, the design of which also will vary widely along the route given the distinctly different natures of the miles of peninsula waterfront.
Also, while the Corps' interest is strictly in protecting our low-lying city from future storm surges, whatever is built should do more than that. If designed well, it could provide protection from higher tides and even heavy, conventional rainfall. The perimeter protection system will include new pumps, which also should be designed to help with conventional drainage. The only question should be who pays for that. Likewise, a well-designed project could help improve water quality, enhance the public realm and reduce future operational and maintenance costs.
We hope the Corps of Engineers will show the flexibility needed to ensure Charleston's project is designed with as much creativity as possible while still accomplishing the Corps' main goals. We're encouraged by a new executive order that urges the agency to deploy nature-based solutions to tackle climate change and enhance resilience. We expect Charleston's perimeter protection will be a blend of nature-based options, such as oyster beds, mud flats and expanded marshes, along with man-made elements, such as ongoing work to raise the Low Battery at the peninsula's southwestern edge.
Last week, the World Meteorological Organization said global temperatures are expected to soar to record highs over the next five years, with a 98% chance that one of those years will eclipse Earth’s hottest year on record, 2016. The city already is expecting 14 inches of sea level rise by 2050, which would threaten the livability of a chunk of downtown if nothing is done.
We have had a pause in the public engagement over how best to protect historic Charleston from rising seas and future storms, and that has presented a welcome opportunity for everyone to recharge on the issue. However, no one should mistake this quiet time as a sign that this is no longer a critical issue for our city. We must prepare to write a new chapter soon.
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