What would the city Board of Architectural Review think about adding a few windmills near Charleston’s Low Battery to help pump out water when it floods? How about a dike around West Ashley?
Nobody is proposing those plans, of course. But officials from the Netherlands and Charleston started exploring a partnership last week to help the city better handle problem flooding and prepare for sea level rise.
And if anybody knows how to handle flooding, it’s the Dutch. For centuries, residents of the Netherlands have managed to stay high and dry even below sea level. Solutions range from the medieval (windmills and earthen dams) to the latest technology (massive, movable steel levees).
Charleston leaders ought to be all ears.
Of course, as innovative as the Dutch have been in handling rising seas and sinking land, their adaptations have required a lot of investment. The national government has spent billions over the past few years to build and maintain flooding protections.
That’s the biggest clog in Charleston’s resiliency efforts. City officials have identified about $2 billion worth of needed projects to help the city prepare for a wetter future. But the economy — and taxing potential — in this city of 135,000 or so residents is obviously quite a bit smaller than a nation of more than 17 million people.
It would take more than a century for Charleston to come up with $2 billion at current revenue levels. At the rate sea levels appear to be rising, a lot of the city would be underwater by then.
And the problem is already urgent for homeowners whose properties have flooded three or more times in the past three years.
We’re going to have to get help from Charleston County. Greenbelt funds could be used strategically to preserve land that can act as barriers and sponges for storm surges and unusually high tides. Infrastructure investments should double as flood prevention improvements.
We’re going to have to get help from the state. Lawmakers can start by allowing Charleston to spend some of its accommodations tax money on flooding solutions. A bill to that end passed overwhelmingly in the state Senate in February and is now in a House committee. It deserves approval.
We’re going to have to get help from the federal government. FEMA started a collaborative effort with the city last year to buy out a few dozen homes in West Ashley that have flooded repeatedly. That process should proceed as quickly as possible, and more homes ought to be considered for future buyouts. It’s far more cost effective than repeated repairs.
And we ought to be more than willing to get some help from the Dutch. Not financial aid, of course. But city officials need to be open to creative, forward-thinking solutions for flood mitigation and prevention. It’s not all about pumps and tunnels.
Indeed, a recent experimental effort to install simple backstops in drainage pipes on the Charleston peninsula has yielded surprisingly good results in preventing high tides from backing up into city streets for far less cost than installing more sophisticated technology.
That’s not an excuse to put off larger projects or ignore the need to raise more money. But it’s an encouraging example of how innovation can sometimes trump more costly solutions.
And that, ideally, is exactly what the Netherlands has to offer.