Washington’s Famed Tidal Basin and Cherry Trees Face Rising Waters

Cherry trees are in full bloom around the Tidal Basin in Washington on Tuesday, March 30, 2021.

Cherry trees are in full bloom around the Tidal Basin in Washington on Tuesday, March 30, 2021. Associated Press

Washington, D.C.’s Tidal Basin, flanked by rows of the city’s celebrated cherry trees, is facing a growing threat from rising seas and land subsidence.

The peak bloom of the Basin’s cherry trees, which occurred several days ago, traditionally draws hundreds of thousands of visitors annually. But this year and last, waters breached the Tidal Basin’s sea walls in places at high tide, according to The Bay Journal, which covers issues related to the Chesapeake Bay. The Bay Journal said that some paths along the Basin were flooded, while other were cratered or eroded by intruding waters. The rising waters also have killed some cherry trees closest to the Tidal Basin.

“All of this area that’s like beach now — it had cherry trees,” said Teresa Durkin, executive vice president of the Trust for the National Mall, as she pointed out sandy paths by the water.

The Tidal Basin, which covers 107 acres, is a man-made reservoir fed by waters from the Potomac River and is near the National Mall. The Basin is flanked by some of the capital’s most famous landmarks, including the Jefferson Memorial, the Martin Luther King Memorial, and the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation named the Tidal Basin as one of the U.S.’s most endangered historic places in 2019, and scientists have said that rising seas could occasionally place the Jefferson Memorial under several feet of water by 2040.

A recently created Tidal Basin Ideas Lab has commissioned five landscape architecture firms to come up with plans for how the area and its renowned cherry trees — originally a gift from the Japanese people to the U.S. in 1912 — could cope with steadily rising waters in the coming decades. The ideas range from building a levee between the Basin and the Potomac, to allowing the river to take back portions of the landscape and to build raised walkways among the monuments.

“Other places are going to arrive at the conclusion that the only way to deal with rising water is to give the land back to the river or the sea,” Durkin said. “But we can’t really do that here, because this is our National Mall.”