Gadsden Creek has a history of abuse. It was filled in with garbage over a few decades in the middle of the past century, although nature reclaimed it with tides and rain. It’s now surrounded by surface parking lots that drain more trash and pollutants into it.
And yet it’s home to a humble marsh ecosystem of birds and fiddler crabs, small fish and other wetland creatures. It’s one of the few places on the Charleston peninsula where those animals can still live.
But that could change if plans to fill in the creek once again proceed as part of the larger WestEdge development, which is expected to bring hundreds of apartments along with bio-science and health jobs, restaurants and retail space.
Concern over the possible impact of losing Gadsden Creek has generated some community pushback, including most recently a request from state Rep. Wendell Gilliard that the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control deny the necessary permits.
It’s a little more complicated than the typical “pave paradise” scenario, however.
Gadsden Creek, being part of a former landfill, could pose a pollution concern in the future if tides keep deepening it. It also lets water flow up into the surrounding neighborhoods during high tides, causing increasingly common “sunny day” flooding.
In other words, it’s not necessarily in anyone’s best interest to leave the creek exactly as is. It’s also not necessarily the best plan to pave it, put in a freshwater retaining pond and pump stormwater north past Riley Park and deep underground into the Spring-Fishburne drainage project.
That highly technical — and presumably very costly — solution might work fine. But it sounds troublingly similar to what happened just across the Crosstown in the Medical District, which was built in large part by paving over creeks and wetlands.
Today, the water during a storm surge or after a heavy rain flows through that part of the peninsula just like it did before anything was built there — along the same former creek beds and gullies. Our best efforts to fight back nature so often fall short.
The team behind the WestEdge project is well aware of this history, of course. And they’re trying to make sure that the development improves the situation rather than makes anything worse.
“We don’t want to be saying in 10 or 15 years, ‘Why didn’t we make the right investments when we had the chance?’” said Michael Maher, CEO of the WestEdge Foundation, on Wednesday.
He’s right. It’s just not clear that the proposed investment is the best one.
A team of international experts on flooding and water management will be in Charleston later this month as part of the ongoing Dutch Dialogues process. A central tenet of their thinking is that it’s more effective and more beneficial to learn to live with water rather than fight it.
That’s certainly a philosophy worth considering as plans for the area around Gadsden Creek proceed, and the area is expected to get a look from the Dutch Dialogues professionals while they’re here.
The best plan for Gadsden Creek is one that improves drainage, helps build a more livable community and protects a fragile natural ecosystem. That can be a tricky balance, but the mistakes of the past offer a clear warning of what will happen if we get it wrong.