Washington, D.C.'s Tidal Basin faces uncertain future with rising waters

Rising waters in D.C. threaten iconic monuments
Rising waters in D.C. threaten iconic monumen... 02:00

Last Updated Apr 22, 2021 7:11 PM EDT

CBS News continues its series "Eye on Earth: Our Planet in Peril," a week of special coverage on our changing planet. On Earth Day, CBS News is shining a light on an ever-growing threat in the nation's capital: rising waters.


Every spring, the cherry trees surrounding the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C., erupt into billowing blossoms of pink and white. Even their neighbors, the Washington Monument and the Thomas Jefferson Memorial, can't compete. 

Cherry Blossom Festival
Yoshino Cherry trees surrounding the Tidal Basin bloom on a rainy Sunday, March 28, 2021, in Washington, D.C., as clouds obscure the top of the Washington Monument.  Carolyn Kaster / AP

But Sean Kennealy, who has worked at this park for 24 years, says there's a creeping concern. 

"I've definitely noticed the water getting a little higher every year," he said. 

Due to climate change, water levels near the nation's capital are rising faster than almost anywhere else on the East Coast. The Tidal Basin is hit hard because the land there is also sinking. 

Every day, twice a day, the Tidal Basin floods at high tide and the walkway alongside the water disappears underneath it. As the water starts to roll in, where the sidewalk ends becomes its own tourist "distraction." 

"In some areas we've lost cherry trees — they've been flooded out," Kennealy said. 

Cherry Blossom Festival
Blooming Yoshino cherry trees glow at sunrise alone the edge of the Tidal Basin on  Monday, March 29, 2021, in Washington, D.C.  Carolyn Kaster / AP

If nothing is done, flood waters could also inundate the Thomas Jefferson Memorial and the Martin Luther King, Jr.  Memorial. The Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial could be submerged in nine feet of water by the end of the century. 

"It's only going to get worse," said Katherine Malone-France, who works at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. 

The National Trust for Historic Preservation named the Tidal Basin one of America's most endangered historic places. It recently asked several landscape architecture firms to reimagine the area. Some ideas call for elevated walkways. Others would relocate entire monuments and let nature take its course. 

"The status quo is not acceptable here for a place this beloved and this significant," Malone-France said.  

  • Ben Tracy
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    Ben Tracy is a CBS News senior national and environmental correspondent based in Washington, D.C.