D.C. Fix’ins: The Tidal Basin
Not just a pretty face.
This week and next, all eyes will be on the lovely cherry trees blooming around a basin in southwest D.C.
It serves as the perfect backdrop for the blossoms as well as the various memorials adjoining it: Jefferson, Mason, FDR and MLK.
The basin dates from the 1800’s, is man-made, about 107 acres in size and all of ten feet deep.
And it has a very specific purpose.
The Potomac river rises and falls with the Atlantic tides meaning during low tide, large swathes of the shoreline were once marshy, muddy flats.
Downtown Washington suffered a horrible flood in 1881 and Congress ordered the Potomac river to be dredged, the resulting fill created a landmass largely ending these flats.
All of the land west of the Washington Monument and heading southeast including West and East Potomac Parks, Hains Point and the Tidal Basin is this reclaimed land.
Hains point created the Washington Channel which terminates roughly at the confluence of the Potomac and Anacostia rivers.
Without an in-flow at the top it would quickly silt up and become unusable, a common problem with canals in the City.
The solution: build a basin at the top and during the high tide cycle, draw water into it, close the in-flow gates and hold it there until low tide begins.
During low tide, open the gates at the head of the Washington Channel and 250 million gallons of water would flow down river and sweep the Channel clear of silt and debris while the Tidal Basin drains by a few feet.
Rinse and repeat, every day, using the forces of nature to do the work.
Over the many years, both water levels and silt levels have risen causing flooding and problems with the upper in-flow gates to the Basin.
In addition, the seawalls surrounding the Basin and out onto the river banks are in various states of disrepair.
Work has commenced to repair and raise the seawalls in the Basin and to repair the river walls from the Memorial Bridge to the inlet gates.
It’s much needed work and we thank them for it though it will once again cause long-term disruption in this part of the city.
National Mall regulars know that it’s not just the work but the staging areas and storage which will keep it interesting.
It’s all a reminder that nothing lasts forever and change is the real constant.