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Dig, Dig, Glub, Glub--DC's Underground Follies

It's all the rage in this height-restricted, land-scarce city: If you can't find open territory for your museum, school or government building, go down--dig deep into the ground and create new space for yourself. It's wildly expensive, but it gets around the problem of having nowhere else to build.

The mother of all such projects, as the Post's Mike Ruane and Joe Stephens report today, is the Capitol Visitors Center, the megamillions boondoggle which is years behind schedule and obscenely over budget. But everywhere you look, you see builders deciding to dig despite the inevitable risk of flooding. Now, a federal study finds that large portions of the Mall--including the site of the underground visitors center for the Vietnam Wall--are in a flood plain that is more dangerous and more liable to flood disastrously than ever imagined.

Much of the Mall and the monumental core of the city was originally underwater and was created by dumping fill into the old Tiber Creek, a river that was once 700 feet wide at what is now the White House lawn. Last year's big flood in the basements of the Commerce, IRS, Justice and National Archives buildings were just a taste of what's yet to come, as the Chesapeake Bay is expected to rise by a foot over the next century. The report for the National Capital Planning Commission says that "a rise in the Potomac River of one foot, combined with a major storm surge, would make the Jefferson Memorial an island and flood the National Mall up to the Reflecting Pool."

Pretty dramatic, no?

What to do? An Army Corps of Engineers levee was built from the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington Monument in 1940 to forestall the big flood, but as these things go, the levee needs work, and the feds are now proposing to bolster the levee, which could mean closing some of the streets that cross the Mall (specifically 23rd Street NW)--and that would create a traffic nightmare.

The NCPC study says that neither the feds nor D.C.'s Water and Sewer Authority could figure out exactly why last year's flood was so bad:

The capacity of the D.C. sewer system in the Federal Triangle area is unknown, as it was constructed before such standards were typically adopted. As a result, it would be easy to conclude that the storm exceeded the capacity of the sewer. However, the consultant noted that flooding started before the rainfall should have exceeded the sewer's capacity. In addition, when the flooding dissipated, it also did so at a speed greater than what would be expected.

Another fix would be to finally address the city's pathetic combined sewer overflow system, the archaic construction that sends raw sewage into the Potomac and the Chesapeake whenever a big rain overstresses the District's ancient sewer pipes. Cost: $1.9 billion. But even that long-needed project would not come close to providing watertight protection.

The levee improvements would cost but $7 million, yet federal officials say they have been unable to get the funding for the project.

The draft report concludes that "Flooding is a risk to the national cultural and historic resources in the area, a financial risk for the property damage, and a security risk given the concentration of key federal functions."

Yet we continue to dig. The Northwest Current's Elizabeth Wiener reported last week that the controversial underground visitors center that Congress has mandated for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial sits smack in the middle of a low-lying spot that's especially prone to flooding.

Wiener witnessed this scene at a planning commission meeting: Commission member Herbert Ames pointed to a map showing a flood plain near the site of the Vietnam Wall visitors center.

"How close is that to the visitors center?" Ames asked.

"It's on top of it," replied commission planner Michelle Desiderio.

Yet "we have close to a congressional mandate to build there," Ames sputtered. "In private business, it would be absolutely crazy to build an underground center in a flood plain."

By Marc Fisher |  March 9, 2007; 7:02 AM ET
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

Just goes to show where the Government's brains are....

Posted by: Look Down South | March 9, 2007 8:09 AM

Writing this or anything off to "the government" is simplistic and juvenile. Representatives and Senators are elected by the people. Blame yourselves. You elected these people. Those of us who live in the District, however, did not.

Posted by: Anonymous | March 9, 2007 9:10 AM

The 09:10 AM poster must be a Government employee. A Government worker who is sucking off taxpayer dollars while posting on web blogs. Hmmm...

Posted by: Voter | March 9, 2007 9:43 AM

VOTER: It must be nice to be just that, a voter. DC residents don't even get the privilege of being able to consider ourselves voters and yet we have to pay for congressionally mandated boondoggles with our tax dollars and our time sitting in traffic.

Posted by: DAJ | March 9, 2007 10:11 AM

Just because people live in DC and can't vote doesn't mean they can't do anything, or at least try. Stop pointing fingers and when dissatisfied with an issue, become activist. Get a group going and make a bit of noise. You won't get anywhere sitting there with your thumb up your @$$.

Posted by: march 9 | March 9, 2007 10:26 AM

I welcome the coming floods. At least then I'll be able to get a parking space in my Hill neighborhood, albeit by boat. This massive Capitol Visitors Center is going to overwhelm neighborhood parking, as the Feds built ZERO parking for it.

Posted by: Hillman | March 9, 2007 10:59 AM

I don't know which contracting office is issuing all these contracts to build in flood areas, but the Contracting Officers needs their heads examined. Their signing their names to these contracts knowing full well that disaster isn't a question of "if", but "when".

Posted by: Mold Anyone? | March 9, 2007 11:01 AM

Hillman, don't forget to order ores with that raft!

Posted by: Toot Toot | March 9, 2007 11:04 AM

Look on the bright side of this - DC may get the worlds most expensive in-ground swimming pool.

Posted by: SoMD | March 9, 2007 11:14 AM

Additionally, when it floods we can blame Pres. Bush & FEMA again.

Oh, wait ... the Congress is making this decision and the Congress is controlled by the Democrats.

Never mind. Must have been an act of God.

Posted by: SoMD | March 9, 2007 11:18 AM

Sorry, SoMD, this was in the planning when the Republicans was in control. You know how long it takes to government to do something!

Posted by: Time keeps ticking | March 9, 2007 11:33 AM

I'm glad to see mention of Tiber Creek and the issues it causes, and disheartened as usual that there isn't more good quality public discussion. The Congress knew back around 1800 that they were taking a somewhat risky path of least resistance when they started building government buildings in the problematic places, in order not to pay the high prices of the land speculators who had acquired the land in the good places. The original logic was to build public buildings mainly eastward from Jenkins/Capitol Hill, and the docks, commercial things, canals/open sewers, etc., on the west. We can somewhat blame GW for the location of the White House, but he seems always to have liked riverfront property, and despite his reputation for lousy topographic sense in locating military encampments, he does seem to have been able to identify riverfront property when he saw it. And didn't Joe Cannon whine and moan incessantly about the folly of building the Lincoln Memorial in a swamp? The point being that it doesn't make a lot of sense to go blaming a bunch of GS-12's now.

Posted by: WW | March 9, 2007 11:41 AM

Ha! Looks like I hit a nerve, WW! Heaven forbid someone should question some of the practices of government contracting!

Posted by: Mold Anyone? | March 9, 2007 12:08 PM

Hey Toot Toot - you know that ore is where metal comes from right? Unless your raft is a barge make sure you wear your floaties. I'll wave as I paddle by in my boat using my o-a-r-s.

Posted by: Anonymous | March 9, 2007 12:50 PM

Thank god for the grammer police. What would we do without there brilliance?

Posted by: Anonymous | March 9, 2007 12:59 PM

Kim Stanley Robinson envisioned the very flood that threatens DC in "Forty Signs of Rain." The Mall underwater. The city a disaster zone. Metro at a standstill (the horror, the horror!)! (but I digress-its an excellent imagined account of what is going to happen once 'the big one' hits)

Posted by: Anonymous | March 9, 2007 1:00 PM

I would bet that if the Feds put out a no bid contract to Haliburton to repair the levee and the sewer system , Bush or Cheney would magically find the money to make the repairs.

Posted by: jmsbh | March 9, 2007 1:41 PM

Also, if the underground center for the Vietmnam memorial could be done by Haliburton, bush would pay for it with a GWOT supplemental appropriation , saying it is to "support the troops".

Posted by: jmsbh | March 9, 2007 1:43 PM

Yo, 12:59: "God", "grammar", and "their".
Spell however you want, but in a written forum, expect not to be taken particularly seriously if you spell like a 4th grader.

Posted by: Anonymous | March 9, 2007 1:52 PM

One-foot rise ?? Reverend Oscar AlGore has read the goat entrails and pontificates a TWENTY-foot rise. We should re-name Friendship Heights **The French Quarter,** and have Mardi Gras there !!

Posted by: gitarre | March 9, 2007 1:59 PM

01:52 PM, you are such a tool.

Posted by: Busted! | March 9, 2007 2:00 PM

Snake Heads on the White House Lawn. Coming to a theater near you.

Posted by: Anonymous | March 9, 2007 2:04 PM

"Time keeps ticking " so true. But the current Congress decided they needed to concentrate on a "Non-Binding" resolution instead of trying to accomplish real work. Has anything changed for the better?

Posted by: SoMD | March 9, 2007 2:37 PM

"Non-Binding"? Does that mean buying properly-fitted underware?

Posted by: Digger | March 9, 2007 2:55 PM

Let's stop this nonsense. Transfer the Visitor's Center project to the Anacostia Waterfront Corporation, give Congressmen free boat slips for their yachts, and make Duke Cunningham Harbormaster.

Posted by: Mike Licht | March 9, 2007 3:29 PM

"I would bet that if the Feds put out a no bid contract to Haliburton to repair the levee and the sewer system , Bush or Cheney would magically find the money to make the repairs."

And it shall be named the DC/Haliburton Back Up the Poop Here and Let It Flow There Liquid Transportation System! We must reserve the Convention Center for the opening gala!

Posted by: Hot shot | March 9, 2007 7:57 PM

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