A photo of cherry trees in D.C.
Save the cherry blossoms! Jeenah Moon/Reuters

The cherry trees at the Tidal Basin look beautiful, but daily flooding at high tide and crumbling infrastructure are threatening their survival.

Crowds stroll the petal-lined perimeter of the National Mall’s Tidal Basin in springtime Washington, D.C., for the National Cherry Blossom Festival. If they’re paying attention to something other than the beautiful view, they might notice walkways overrun by flooding.

Although millions of people come to the Tidal Basin each year (the National Mall is the most visited national park in the country), the sea wall surrounding the basin has hardly been modified since it was constructed in 1882.

That’s a problem, because near the Thomas Jefferson and George Mason memorials, the wall is sinking. At high tide, twice each day, 250 million gallons of water from the Potomac River enter the Tidal Basin through the inlet gates. The state of the sea wall is one reason, and rising water levels in the Potomac River exacerbate the problem. Starting about eight to 10 years ago, daily flooding has threatened the cherry trees’ roots and engulfed walkways.

a photo of a flooded walkway by D.C.'s tidal basin
A flooded walkway in Washington, D.C.’s Tidal Basin. (Nicole Javorsky/CityLab)

“Cherry trees are not particularly happy in this climate,” said Teresa Durkin, senior vice president of the nonprofit Trust for the National Mall, on a tour of the damage last week, “and we put them in bad conditions with the brackish water.”

On April 3, the Trust for the National Mall and the National Trust for Historic Preservation announced a new three-year campaign called “Save the Tidal Basin” to address the site’s problems in collaboration with the National Park Service. Fixing the Tidal Basin could cost as much as $500 million, the organizations estimate. The focus of the campaign will be the National Mall Tidal Basin Ideas Lab—architectural and landscape design firms will be invited to propose solutions to the Tidal Basin’s challenges. The same day the campaign was announced, the National Trust named the site a “National Treasure.”

The American Express Foundation is backing the Ideas Lab with a $750,000 grant. It will take about three years to develop the ideas to present to the public and for environmental review. Of course, the ideas would need funding to be realized.

In addition to the cherry trees, the area around the Tidal Basin hosts the Martin Luther King, Jr., Franklin D. Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson, and George Mason memorials. “Current conditions do not do justice to a landscape of such significance,” said Katherine Malone-France of the National Trust. Eventually, they might. In the meantime, the Park Service has been replacing cherry trees that are dying faster than usual due to flooding.

Warmer temperatures associated with climate change are also affecting the cherry blossoms: According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, peak-bloom dates for the cherry trees have shifted earlier by approximately five days since 1921.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Transportation

    A Horrifying Glimpse Into Your Dystopian Future Transit Commute

    A comic artist’s take on what the future of transportation might really feel like.

  2. a photo of the Maryland Renaissance Festival
    Life

    The Utopian Vision That Explains Renaissance Fairs

    What’s behind the enduring popularity of all these medieval-themed living-history fairs?

  3. Two men look over city plans at a desk in an office.
    Equity

    The Doomed 1970s Plan to Desegregate New York’s Suburbs

    Ed Logue was a powerful agent of urban renewal in New Haven, Boston, and New York City. But his plan to build low-income housing in suburbia came to nought.

  4. A cyclist rides on the bike lane in the Mid Market neighborhood during Bike to Work Day in San Francisco,
    Perspective

    Why We Need to Dream Bigger Than Bike Lanes

    In the 1930s big auto dreamed up freeways and demanded massive car infrastructure. Micromobility needs its own Futurama—one where cars are marginalized.

  5. An old apartment building and empty lot and new modern construction
    Equity

    Will Presidential Candidates’ Plans to Address Redlining Work?

    Housing plans by Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, and Pete Buttigieg intend redress for racist redlining housing practices, but who will actually benefit?

×