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No simple solutions for Gadsden Creek

Should it be saved?

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Allston McCrady's July 10 City Paper story asked readers to consider if Gadsden Creek could be saved from development. We think the better question to ask is: Should it?

Gadsden Creek is not a natural creek. It's a tidally influenced drainage channel that cuts through an unlined, poorly constructed landfill along the Ashley River in downtown Charleston. The impaired creek is a product of past sins by the city of Charleston, which — before the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972 — created a city dump alongside a predominately African-American community in the 1950s and forever changed the health and ecology of a part of the peninsula.

Today's creek has little in common with the 1940s version of itself. It is, quite simply, not healthy. Only a thin, eroding strip of clay separates the creek from decades of decomposing garbage, appliances, old tires and medical waste below.

The trash pit begins about five feet below the surface. In some places along the creek, trash is exposed. All the data we've seen indicate the soil, groundwater, sediment, and surface water in and around the creek show signs of contamination — posing an enormous risk to people living nearby and downstream, and the wildlife that rely on the creek.

The creek sits on a part of the peninsula already grappling with flooding, climate change and sea-level rise. And what's worse, it is constrained by buildings, roads and parking lots and can't flood and drain naturally. Spartina alterniflora, vegetation that takes root in intertidal wetlands, is growing along Harmon Field, an indicator of the area's ecological disruption and confusion.

Because it meets the Ashley River, the creek often overflows with high tides. On these days and when it rains, it floods Hagood Avenue, forcing residents of Gadsden Green and students and teachers at Charleston Development Academy to wade through water. From May 2018 to April 2019, the peninsula saw five days of severe, sunny-day flooding.

Realistically, the creek cannot be restored to its natural state. We need a solution that starts with accepting the reality of the creek's condition today. Then we need a plan to move forward for the good of the neighborhood and the Ashley River.

In 2015, WestEdge developers requested to fill in the creek and tidal wetlands. At first, our organizations opposed the plan, but after several years of analysis, collaboration, and tough deliberation, our thinking changed.

At public meetings on the development in 2015, community members raised concerns and called for solutions including: reducing flooding, reconnecting the area to the rest of the city, creating ways for people to walk or bike across the Crosstown without risking their lives, and improving access to the Ashley River.

We worked diligently to look at alternatives that would come with added benefits to the community. Today, a new plan exists and is moving forward, and delivers on issues the community raised nearly five years ago.

Developers plan to impact four acres of impaired creek and marshland, install critical drainage infrastructure on the creek, and engineer a wetland to collect and filter stormwater. This strategy makes sense for this site because it's been so severely altered it can't be returned to its natural state.

In addition to other vital improvements to the area's drainage system, the current plan includes a link along Hagood south to Spring and Cannon Streets, connecting the Westside to MUSC and its medical resources and job center. The plan also includes the restoration of more than 20 acres of wetlands in the same watershed that will protect water quality in the Ashley River and for people downstream.

The current plan does not atone for decades of injustice, and city leaders must answer to actions by previous administrations. Still, it may set up our community for better conditions than it's facing today.

We are enthused by more voices joining the public review process, and we remain open to learning about and helping to explore other plans. We just haven't seen or heard any realistic solutions yet.

Any plan must meet or exceed the bar already set by the one on the table now. It is the best choice, among many hard choices, that addresses the community's concerns.

Throughout Charleston's long history, the degree to which the city, industry, and polluters have altered the peninsula and its meandering creeks and marshland is extreme. But true resilience is not about restoring Charleston to some past state. It's about facing reality and preparing for a future with more water and one that guarantees higher quality of life for everyone.

Laura Cantral is the Executive Director of the Coastal Conservation League. Andrew Wunderley is the Executive Director of Charleston Waterkeeper.

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