The cost to fix flooding in Charleston has bloomed to some $3 billion in total, city officials say — a price tag for solutions from cleaning out plugged drainage systems to new, deep tunnels and a wall that could deflect hurricane waves from the downtown peninsula.
In 2017, The Post and Courier asked city officials how much it might cost to fix flooding in the face of a climate that is supercharging flooding rains and pushing sea levels higher. At the time, the estimate was $2 billion, including several hefty projects that were already under way.
But now that number is rising, in large part because of an Army Corps of Engineers proposal to wall off the downtown area from the water. If the project, still in early planning stages, reaches the finish line, the city would have to pay a portion that’s estimated at around $500 million.
In the meantime, a slew of other work in other neighborhoods in the city is ongoing, chewing up the city’s fund for drainage work and sending staff on time-consuming efforts to secure federal grant funds. In all, the city plans to spend almost $58 million, including grant money, on stormwater and drainage efforts in 2021, CFO Amy Wharton said.
These projects, Director of Stormwater Management Matt Fountain said, mostly aren’t aimed at preparing for the 2- to 3-feet of sea level rise the city expects in the next 50 years. They’re an effort to fix the severe flooding problems already existing, which have resulted, in part, from years of poor development decisions about where and how to build in the region’s low topography.
A car drives through water past the West Ashley Library on Windermere Boulevard on Thursday, March 5, 2020, in Charleston. File/Gavin McIntyre/Staff
In an interview with the paper, Fountain ticked off a list of 20 major water management projects somewhere in the pipeline from design to construction, including:
- Engineered wetlands on the former sites of flooded homes in far-flung West Ashley.
- Outfall cleaning around the city, in neighborhoods like the historic Byrnes Downs.
- Plans to divert water around the Barberry Woods neighborhood on Johns Island.
- New pipes and eventually pumps to evacuate water from the flood-prone King and Huger streets intersection.
As far as work that will fend off the water of the future, “I think we just haven’t quite gotten there yet. We’re still so buried into the things that we need to fix that are currently causing problems,” Fountain said.
The one exception, he said, is the proposed seawall, which has proved controversial since its inception. The city hasn’t officially voted to move forward with it and hasn’t put together a funding plan for its share of the project. But they will have to certify to the Corps by the end of the year that the city will pay the 35 percent match of the total project cost. There will be time after that point to come up with those funding sources, said Mark Wilbert, the city’s outgoing chief of resilience, because the Corps itself will spend several months internally reviewing the wall plan.
“We’re looking under every rock,” Mayor John Tecklenburg said. “You just kind of ask for everything, and at the end of the day, see where you land.”
Ultimately, the many needs of Charleston put it in competition for state funds with communities around South Carolina, and for federal funds with many cities nationally. There are several communities in the Southeast that are also working with the Army Corps on climate adaptation plans, and who may be in contention when Congress decides who deserves funding.
“This is something the city of Charleston and all coastal communities will be dealing with for eternity,” Wilbert said. “We will be adapting forever.”
Right now, Charleston cobbles together its money for flooding improvements from a variety of sources — a fee on water and sewer bills that covers smaller projects and the budget for the stormwater department, a small portion of property taxes for a dedicated drainage fund, special tax districts and a bevy of various grants.
The tax districts in particular, usually abbreviated as TIFs, have come to a particular importance in recent years. These TIFs rely on rising property values. When they are put in place, they freeze the amount of money sent to school district, county and city coffers. If the lots inside become more valuable over time, that additional tax money is set aside in a special fund that the city can borrow against or use to pay directly for certain projects.
Take the example of a particularly successful tax district along King Street, which Wharton said has raised $123.6 million since it was established in 1998. It has helped to pay for significant portions of the deep-tunnel drainage system the city is building under the Septima P. Clark Parkway, also known as the Crosstown. When that complex project, known as Spring-Fishburne, encountered a $43 million cost overrun a few years ago, the city was able to rely on this well-performing district to cover some of the difference.
These arrangements don’t last forever. The King Street district is set to expire in 2023, removing that as a source of future funds. They also require buy-in from schools who are essentially foregoing revenue. Charleston County School District declined entirely to participate in a much newer tax district around flood-prone Church Creek, Wharton said. That fund is devoted entirely to water management projects.
In other cases, there’s disagreement on whether to use these proceeds for drainage at all, as has happened in a special district that covers Charleston’s Eastside neighborhood. Some wanted to use the money for the upcoming Lowline park; Councilman Keith Waring prefers the money help pay for drainage fixes in the historically Black and rapidly gentrifying Eastside neighborhood.
America Street is covered by water after several inches of rain fell on Wednesday, May 20, 2020, in Charleston. The street is one of several on Charleston’s East Side that persistently floods during intense storms. File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff
In a meeting at the beginning of June, Waring bemoaned the fact that for years the city didn’t dedicate much money for drainage at all, and now the Eastside has needs that will probably range between $15 million and $20 million. A city consultant is studying the area now to decide exactly what projects should be done there, Fountain said.
“We’ve got a lot of good ideas sitting on the shelf,” Waring said, “but the elephant in the room is funding.”
City Council hasn’t made a final decision on how to use the money from the district that covers the Eastside. But Wharton said there may be other options if they do opt to pay for the park, like finding grants to pay for it.
Grant funding has gone a long way in helping the city design new approaches for the Church Creek basin and Johns Island. Those federal dollars come with a cost, though. It could take months of staff time to fully prepare an application, with no guarantee they’ll be awarded.
A smaller approach
Fountain said his strategy of late has been to aim for smaller-in-scope projects that offer relief now, so residents don’t feel ignored while larger, multi-year efforts are under way.
In one case, that means working on several smaller efforts first in the drainage basin that was next projected for deep drainage tunnels: Calhoun West, which covers the southwest corner of the Charleston peninsula, one of the lowest and most flood-prone areas of the city.
The area is a wealthy one, with historic homes worth millions, and picturesque Colonial Lake, an engineered waterbody the city drains before storms to ensure it does not spill over. Charleston has already done conceptual engineering on a tunnel system there, but isn’t moving forward on the design or permits yet because of many other, smaller efforts.
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One, a single shaft tunneling down from Ehrhardt Street, will replicate a portion of the system and connect it to existing tunnels to the north. The city is also working on cleaning out historic brick-arch drains and potentially raising the sidewalk along low-lying Lockwood Drive to block high tides, Fountain said.
“We need to get those things to their next step … to kick out more project work behind them,” Fountain said. “Each thing we can do that moves water out of the basin more efficiently reduces the size and scope of the tunnel work.”
Floodwater covers a sidewalk along Ashley Avenue in the Medical District on July 8, 2021, following the passage of Tropical Storm Elsa. This section of downtown Charleston, home to three major medical institutions, had flooded for decades. File/Lauren Petracca/Staff
The Corps’ wall proposal would also affect where and how the city would build Calhoun West’s deep tunnels and a pump to drain them.
Just the Ehrhardt Street shaft alone costs north of $10 million, and the money wasn’t easy to find. Officials for the three large medical providers in the hospital district and Tecklenburg lobbied state government officials for years before funding was included in a round of Housing and Urban Development money the state started to parcel out earlier in 2021.
In the past, the city relied on large-scale projects like Spring-Fishburne, the more expansive tunnel system north of the area where Calhoun West would be installed. But Spring-Fishburne encountered significant delays in its construction timeline, in part because it was difficult to secure funding in the first place. Fountain said he doesn’t want to leave people waiting for years without smaller relief.
He also urged that the deep-tunnel design will have to fit with other projects in the basin that are being designed or built now.
Councilman Mike Seekings, who represents that part of the city, said the Calhoun West tunnel project is still an essential one. With spring thunderstorms this year dumping water that piled 2- or 3-feet deep in that zone, “It’s an unsustainable quality of life and public safety model we have to remedy,” he said.
The problem, Seekings said, is that the city needs to more clearly define what projects to do, and in what order. Fountain said the city does have a rubric developed by consultant AECOM to prioritize projects based on economic benefits, environmental impacts, social needs and future maintenance costs, but the stormwater department hasn’t finished scoring all the proposed projects yet.
The city is gradually replacing its 19th century brick arches with a modern network of deep drainage tunnels, such as this one. Ralfael Reveles drives a train through the Spring-Fishburne drainage tunnels on Friday, Feb. 8, 2019, in Charleston. File/ Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff
The seawall project, if the city decides to pursue it, would be covered 35 percent by Charleston and 65 percent by a federal appropriation for the Corps. The most recent estimate pegs the total cost at some $1.4 billion.
That projection is likely to change, and might have to if the project is ever to get federal funding. Right now, its ratio of benefits to costs, as counted by the Corps, is 2.2. In other words, every dollar invested has a $2.20 value in avoided damage. Federal reviewers usually favor projects with a ratio of 2.5 or higher for funding, a Corps spokeswoman said.
If it does move forward, the project is a pay-as-you-go affair: money would only be due as the design or construction happens. Project leaders have already said the wall construction would happen in four phases.
“That (local) price tag is not something that’s due next year or in five years. It could, in fact, be due over 20 years,” said Dale Morris, a longtime flooding consultant to the city who is becoming its next chief resilience officer in the fall.
City officials have said the state has a role to play in funding this because of Charleston’s economic impact on the rest of the state. But if the much smaller $10 million bill for the Medical District’s Ehrhardt shaft is any indication, it could be hard to make that argument. An earlier attempt to include that line item in the state’s 2020 budget failed.
Dana Beach, a founder of the Coastal Conservation League who has since retired from that environmental advocacy group, worried whether the city’s political leadership would really be able to convince lawmakers to put up the money.
It’s not as if legislators are unwilling to pay for large construction projects in the region; the State Ports Authority, Beach argued, secured a vote in favor of borrowing $550 million for an expanded rail yard and barges in the Charleston Harbor.
But in Charleston, “We just have this hope that the Corps of Engineers will do something, will put the money in, and we’ll somehow come up with the 35 percent match,” Beach said. “Hope is not a strategy.”
Tecklenburg said he’s already talking to state and federal officials about how to fund the city’s share.
“You’re not going to find one funding source that’s going to pay for a big project,” he said. At the state level, “I think we can be successful getting a piece at a time, but maybe not get the whole enchilada like the Ports Authority has.”
The first pieces of a potential strategy could come in the next few months. An advisory group reviewing the wall plan is also focusing on possible funding ideas, Wilbert said, as is the city itself. More special tax districts or fees could be part of the picture, he said. The state has also set aside almost $50 million for flood projects, distributed by a new Office of Resilience, but communities around the state will compete for that low-cost loan fund.
Morris was optimistic. He pointed to the federal American Rescue Plan funds that are coming to South Carolina, $2.5 billion in all, which can be used for infrastructure projects. Additional funding through HUD, he said, will also help cities and towns pay for projects to fix flooding before disasters instead of after — a longtime blind spot in federal funding.
“It’s more positive right now for federal resources to support communities than I’ve seen for a long time,” Morris said.
That may be limited help in the case of the wall project; if Congress funds the Corps’ share, the city generally can’t use federal funds to pay for its own portion without special permission, a Corps spokeswoman said.
But first, the city will have to decide this fall if it actually wants to move forward with a wall at all.