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Storm Drainage requires Tricky Engineering – Give us a break!
Lee Walton

Chronic flooding throughout the streets of Charleston has been the bane of peninsula dwellers for over a century, but its damaging impacts upon property, commerce, tourism and private vehicles continues to accelerate at an ever increasing rate due to the woefully inadequate action by the current City administration. For over three decades, the current mayor of Charleston has promised sweeping improvements to the peninsula’s all-too-frequent flooding woes. Like a frog croaking after a spring shower, each time a major flooding event occurs downtown, Mayor Riley resurrects the same old shop-worn rhetoric, his star-crossed Calhoun Street tunnel project, and other outdated drainage master plans as fodder for his loyal media cronies and speech-numbed citizens alike.

Riley’s latest song-and-dance excuse for over three decades of inaction was aired during the evening news on August 13th by WCSC, his pet, bought-by-the-pound TV station. During a mercifully brief sound bite, Riley blamed the problem on “Tricky Engineering” required to solve the City’s now all-to-frequent flooding problems.

The truth is very basic, albeit far less world-class and glamorous than Riley’s diversion of the City’s financial resources to pet, high visibility, and want-to-be award-winning monuments to his ego. For over three decades the street and drainage infrastructure of Charleston has been financially short-sheeted. The damaging consequences of this chronic under-funding are now far more than an occasional embarrassment and the harbinger of a future tragedy during a major storm event. But for Riley, maybe that’s what it takes. He’s now having to pour tens of millions of tax revenue into his Fire Department that for decades was stripped of all but spit, polish, and sharp-creased, albeit flammable, uniforms with deadly consequences.

The genesis of most flooding along the margins of the Charleston peninsula lies in the 19th and 20th century filling of open tidal waters and marshes for institutional, medical, port related, and residential development. During the lifetime of many Charlestonians who grew up on the peninsula, the western margins of the City have been extended from Barre, Courtney, and President Streets to several hundred feet west of Lockwood Drive. To the east, industrial and port-related activities have extended the peninsula’s shoreline well beyond Concord, East Bay, upper Meeting Street and several hundred feet east of Morrison Drive.

Over the past half-century, most of the antiquated, 19th century east-west storm drains have been extended well beyond their historic outfall locations to serve hundreds of newly created acres of dense, urban development on each side of the peninsula. Compounded challenges impacting these old, poorly maintained drainage facilities include significant decreases in pervious land surfaces, replaced by acres of paved streets, parking areas, and rooftops. Adding insult to injury, Mother Nature has significantly decreased the original carrying capacity of the largest, old brick-arch drainage culverts through “sea level rise”. Drains that were originally constructed at the then, late 19th century, mean low water level are now partially filled with tidal water at current low tide levels; this rise in sea level has effectively reduced the carrying capacity of these 100 plus year-old drainage facilities by significant percentages.

Related problems associated with recently filled land areas constructed on 1950 to 1970 era trash and garbage dumps manifest themselves as severe street flooding west of Ashley Avenue as these filled lands continue to compress the underlying garbage and soft mud and settle within the reach of every full-moon high tide. Bee, Haygood, Gadsden, Beaufain, Wentworth, Ashley Avenue, and the Cross-town are but a few of the heavily traveled, filled-land streets on the west side that frequently flood to impassable depths.

Like the Fire Department, Charleston’s drainage infrastructure cannot be kept barely functional on near starvation level funding for decades without unintended consequences. Playing catch-up from years of severe under-funding and gross neglect in today’s regulatory and construction cost environments will be a daunting task for even the most dedicated public servants and taxpayers alike. Drainage infrastructure that, arguably, could have been constructed at former reasonable costs and maintained with decades of dedication and adequate funding, will now take at least a decade of dedicated sacrifice and hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to accomplish.

What peninsula Charleston’s drainage facilities require is not “Tricky Engineering” or any more of Riley’s voodoo economics. What’s needed is the dedicated commitment by a Mayor and City Council to allocate the necessary public resources to construct and maintain the mundane, out-of-sight things that will keep our feet dry and our cars and property from flooding. Unfortunately for Riley, storm drains lack the glitter and world-class, award-winning potential of his many other monuments that have cost the citizens of Charleston millions in hard earned tax dollars.

What good is an aquarium, parking garage, or ballpark if we risk flooding our cars going to them? Although several areas of Charleston maybe slowly sinking back into the Ashley and Cooper Rivers, as with his Fire Department and former “Chief-for-Life”, Riley will never admit that the greatest neglect and denial of public safety and public service in the last half-century of Charleston’s history has happened during his all-too-lengthy reign.

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