Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Some of D.C.'s famous cherry trees will be removed to repair a crumbling sea wall


Here in Washington, the famous cherry blossoms hit peak bloom on Sunday, blanketing parts of the capital with pink and white flowers. And there was a crowd. According to Instagram, our own Ari Shapiro was among the tourists. I had to take somebody to the airport, and the fastest route circled around the masses who were taking in the scene, getting one last chance to see the blossoms as they have been - because, of the thousands of cherry trees, more than 100 will soon be cut down to adapt to rising sea levels. Jacob Fenston has the story.

JACOB FENSTON, BYLINE: Amit Gandhi is visiting D.C. from Florida with his family. Like any good tourists, they stop and take selfies at the Tidal Basin. It's an inlet in the Potomac River surrounded by blossoming cherry trees. But the bench they're sitting on isn't next to the water. It's actually in the water.

AMIT GANDHI: It's kind of sad. I mean, we are taking pictures here, you know, because it seems interesting, because, you know, there are benches in the middle of the water.

FENSTON: The Gandhis are holding their feet up, and there are ducks swimming around the bench. This is not some freak flood. In fact, it happens every day. Mike Litterst is a spokesperson for the National Park Service.

MIKE LITTERST: During high tide, every day, twice a day, that sidewalk, that walkway go underwater.

FENSTON: There are two forces working together to undermine the Tidal Basin and the trees and monuments around it. First, the land has been sinking. It was built using mud dredged up from the Potomac River bottom, and it's settled by about five feet over the past century. At the same time, the water level has gone up by more than a foot because of climate change.

LITTERST: Combining those two factors, you now have water six feet above where the seawall was originally designed to keep it out from.

FENSTON: Later this spring, the park service will break ground on a project to raise portions of the walkway around the basin. Officials project it will be high enough to withstand about a century of future sea-level rise, and it's engineered so they can build on top of it if needed. But it will require cutting down about 140 of the iconic cherry blossom trees, including the most famous one, Stumpy.

DEBBY SWOPE: I just fell in love with Stumpy. I saw him, and I looked him up two years ago and found out he has a Facebook page.

FENSTON: Debby Swope is an eighth grade history teacher visiting from Oregon. Stumpy is a survivor. At high tide, the tree's trunk is submerged in water, and much of it's rotted out. But each spring, the tree's three or four branches burst into flower. Stumpy and the other low-lying trees will be torn out to make way for construction equipment, but clippings from the famous tree will be sent to the National Arboretum to propagate new trees. Stumpy will be mulch, but the tree's memory and scrappy genetics will live on.

For NPR News, I'm Jacob Fenston.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jacob Fenston is WAMU’s environment reporter. In prior roles at WAMU, he was the founding producer of The Big Listen, interim managing producer of Metro Connection, and a news editor. His work has appeared on many national programs and has been recognized by regional and national awards. More importantly, his reporting has taken him and his microphone deep into muddy banks of the Anacostia River, into an enormous sewage tunnel, and hunting rats in infested alleys. His best story ever (as determined by himself) did not win any awards, even though it required recording audio while riding a bicycle the wrong way down the busy streets of Oakland, Calif.