Carl Wernicke: Flooding And Learning From The Past

Oct 22, 2014

Credit IHMC

There’s a reason why archeologists dig to recover the past. Nature piles the new on top of the old, and so do we. But covering something up doesn’t make it go away.  Just ask Richard Nixon! Or, as William Faulkner famously put it, “The past is never dead. It's not even past.”

In Pensacola, our Superfund sites tell us all we need to know about how the past stays with us. A happier example is the archaeological work done by the University of West Florida, uncovering so much of our past.

Today see it as we struggle with flooding that grows worse with every new parking lot we pave, and with weather growing more severe from causes scientists warn us about, and politicians run from.

In downtown Pensacola, we are discovering that the wetlands and creeks the Spanish found – and almost immediately began filling – are still there. We can’t see them until heavy rains come. Then the ground quickly saturates and the floodwaters rise. This isn’t something unique to Pensacola; it is how it has been done almost everywhere. The Spanish began the filling; the British continued it in creating the Garden plots that became Garden Street, and in the 1880s and 90s the city finished off the remaining wetlands by dumping garbage and debris from a big downtown fire.

To trace the path of one of the underground downtown creeks, I recently took a tour sponsored by the Northern Gulf Coast Chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council. We followed the course of San Gabriel Creek, also known as Washerwoman’s Creek. The spring-fed stream drains portions of North Hill and downtown, beginning where a wetland once stood at the Garden Street-Spring street intersection. The springs and creek are still there, flowing underground down Spring Street, then veering west past City Hall and the complex of state office buildings, through the old site of the Main Street Sewage Treatment Plant. That plant stood on fill that covers the mouth of the creek, which resurfaces below Main Street by the Nick’s Boathouse sign.

Another creek, which might be a future tour, flows underground to the east, past St. Michael’s Cemetery to an ancient wetland we now call Aragon.

One of the tour leaders was attorney and city resident Erick Mead, who is pushing the idea of  “daylighting” San Gabriel creek; that is, removing the dirt, debris and asphalt covering it to restore the old creek basin. Doing so would help control flooding, reduce flood insurance premiums, improve water quality and create an attractive green corridor that could be lined with walking paths. And, counter-intuitively, it should also facilitate development. There is a surprising amount of undeveloped, and underdeveloped, land along the creek basin, which is still discernible despite the apparent flatness of downtown. Mead said the high water table and mucky soil make it expensive to build stable foundations. One moderate-sized building required replacing 15 feet of muck with red clay. I talked to a builder who confirmed the difficulty of working in that part of town.

Daylighting has been done successfully elsewhere, sometimes paid for with bonds repaid out of property tax growth that comes with new development.  

It would likely cost millions of dollars to uncover the estimated 3,000 linear feet that could feasibly be daylighted. Mead holds out hope that it could be part of a comprehensive downtown drainage solution, and suggests it could even be cost-competitive with trying to replace old drainage pipes with bigger ones.

Which is ironic when you consider that had we simply lived with the creek as nature designed it, we would have had all these benefits for free.