Daylighting Streams

Sept. 1, 2010

Daylighting—the practice of restoring a stream that had been routed through a culvert back to its natural state—is becoming a more common stormwater trend throughout the United States. By taking the stream out of the concrete channel, daylighting allows for infiltration, and it improves downstream water quality by removing pollutants from the water. Wildlife habitat, as well as eye-pleasing green space, is expanded through creek daylighting.

The practice of daylighting can be part of larger restoration projects. It can be a less expensive option for municipalities that have to repair or replace decaying culverts or channels to avoid fines for violations from combined sanitary and stormwater sewer overflow occurrences.

The benefit of the growing trend is perhaps best articulated through a statement on the Web site of Springfield, MO’s own Jordan Creek daylighting project. “The project promotes the idea that urban streams are a valuable resource to be enjoyed rather than a nuisance to be tunneled underground.”

Dunes Creek
Dunes Creek, located at Indiana Dunes State Park, had long been diverted through a pipe that ran under a parking lot at the state park. In recent years, it was discovered that the enclosure of Dunes Creek, a tributary to Lake Michigan, had been contributing to the presence of E. coli in the lake.

That discovery was a precipitating factor leading to daylighting Dunes Creek, opening the entire Dunes Creek system to Lake Michigan.

“Beaches were closed because of E. coli, and the enclosure was described as an incubator or Petri dish, so opening it up helped resolve that issue,” says Terry Heatlie, a technical monitor and habitat restoration specialist for the Great Lakes region for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). “The natural filtering you get out of the stream can take place now. Flood waters will not be restrained to an 84-inch culvert anymore.”

The daylighting project was funded by NOAA through $1.4 million in federal stimulus funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, augmented by about $140,000 in Federal Emergency Management Agency funding.

Gerling Solutions Inc.
Upstream of old Boise factory site where Pringle Creek goes under a city street and the factory structure
City of Salem:
Pre-demolition condition
Gerling Solutions Inc.
Downstream end where creek emerges from
under the structures

During the daylighting project’s first phase, the Dunes Creek stream channel and wetland were restored to their original location when a portion of the parking lot had been removed to reveal a pipe into which the creek had been diverted.

That phase won several awards, including the Governor’s Award for Environmental Excellence, the Chicago Wilderness/EPA Conservation and Native Landscaping Award, and the Association of Conservation Engineers 2007 Award.

The daylighting project moved into its second phase in the fall of 2009 to repair damage that occurred during a September 2008 flood, in which a 20,000-square-foot portion of the parking lot collapsed after receiving 16 inches of rain over four days.

Completing the project in the second phase enables more benefits, such as opening the creek up to fish that migrate from the open waters up into the rivers for spawning and feeding, notes Heatlie. When daylighting is completed, Dunes Creek will run along the east edge of the new pavilion parking lot.

James Balsiger, during his tenure as the acting administrator of NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service, noted that the project exemplifies how daylighting can provide local jobs and improve the environment—in this case, by restoring a natural connection between a large watershed and Lake Michigan. The project will also improve the lake’s water quality, provide habitat for diverse species, improve flood protection, and enhance a public park’s recreational appeal.

One of the prominent features of the project is a live camera that uploads images to the Internet every 15 minutes at The “Dunes Creek Recovery Cam” gives the public a real-time view of the project’s progress. The entire project will be available on the Web site in time-lapse upon completion.

Visitors to the NOAA Web site were able to witness the excavation that enabled the daylighting to occur; in late 2009, the camera focused on the construction of a retaining wall.

The camera goes a long way in alleviating public concerns and questions. Not all daylighting projects are favorably received by the public; in some cases, nearby residents object to land use changes.

Pringle Creek
Historically, riverfront property in many cities across the United States was reserved for industrial use. Pringle Creek in Salem, OR, was no exception. The site where the creek entered the Willamette River had hosted many industrial uses—notably, as the site of the Boise Cascade Corporation. Of the buildings constructed on the site, the earliest dates back to 1910. The buildings covered the creek.

Until the mid-1980s, pulp and paper was processed at the plant, and eventually the plant was used to transform paper into end-user products. In 2007, Boise Cascade ceased operations and closed the plant. The property was purchased by a local investment group to convert into a mixed-use project.

“That started a multi-year process in getting the area rezoned from industrial into mixed-use zoning and planning for the rehabilitation and cleanup of the entire site,” says Tim Gerling, a project consultant who retired as Salem’s public works director in 2007.

The project’s signature piece is restoring the creek, which runs through the middle of it, he says.

“We’re in the process of dismantling the buildings, expanding the creek, reusing some of the buildings on the south side of the creek, and building new buildings on the north bank,” says Gerling.

The daylighting project is a few years from completion, says Gerling, including obtaining the necessary permits from various resource agencies. “Dealing with an urban creek is not an easy task. There are 18 separate agencies or departments within agencies that have jurisdiction in some way, shape, or form.” This multijurisdictional aspect of the project is its biggest challenge, he notes.

“We also have physical challenges to deal with,” he says. “One of the difficulties in dealing with resource agencies is most of them are geared for riparian-type restorations, where you’ve got a little room to work.

“This is a downtown urban environment that’s been highly altered over the years. There are no natural banks that can be restored. It’s all old industrial fill. It’s trying to walk that fine line with the agencies between ‘Yes, we want to daylight the creek and restore it—but here are the challenges.’ There’s the old industrial fill at the mouth of the creek, so we’ve got about 2,500 to 3,000 cubic feet per second of flow under flood conditions that runs through there with velocities of about 5 to 10 feet per second.”

Consequently, it’s difficult to put down soil and plantings that will survive the first flood, says Gerling.

The project also entails meeting buffer requirements. “We still do stormwater treatment for anything that gets discharged to the creek,” he notes. “It is a highly constrained urban site, so it is most likely going to be mechanical treatment rather than trying to do bioswales. We don’t have enough room to do the natural treatment.”

Safety issues are another consideration.

“Over the years, the creek has deepened in size, so the normal water level during the summer is about 30 feet below street level,” says Gerling. “How do you bring people close to the creek without having a 30-foot drop-off and having to fence it all off?

“Immediately adjacent to this site, the city has what they call Riverfront City Park, which is reclaimed industrial land that they’ve turned into a very successful park. Locally, it’s referred to as Salem’s ‘front yard.’ What we’re hoping to do is make a missing-link connection with pedestrian and bike paths,” he adds.

Jordan Creek
Flood mitigation has been the goal in an ongoing daylighting project occurring at Jordan Creek in Springfield, MO. The project is part of a larger effort to reduce potential flooding hazards to several properties adjacent to the creek area by removing them from the 100-year floodplain while providing water-quality enhancement, incorporating a linear park trail, and adding aesthetic value to the neighborhood.

It is the first daylighting project in Springfield. Inadequate drainage tunnels were removed and a new “stream” ecosystem was reconstructed through a greenway corridor with a pedestrian trail connecting two parks.

The $2.8 million project entails $83,000 for design, $2.5 million for construction, and $243,000 for land acquisition. The bulk of the funding has been derived from a stormwater bond and augmented by federal transportation enhancement grant funds, Springfield-Greene County Parks funds, city utilities, and a $10,000 grant from the Community Foundation of the Ozarks Stewardship Ozarks Fund.

The first phase of the project was completed in summer 2005. The second phase was completed in spring 2007.

The project began with the acquisition of a flood-prone house, a commercial property, and additional vacant floodplain property. The federal grant funded the construction of a trail with pedestrian underpasses at each of the four streets to eliminate at-grade crossings.

During the project’s first phase, the creek channel was reconstructed with gently sloping banks, and the channel was stabilized with articulated concrete block mats, which contain open centers and spacing through which vegetation can filter pollutants and reduce downstream erosion and flooding by slowing down the water and promoting infiltration.

During the second phase, the creek was reconstructed with curving block walls and sloping, grass sides. Natural boulders edge the low-flow channel, creating a natural stream form and keeping maintenance costs low. Deteriorated rock walls were reconstructed to match historic walls. Decorative concrete and railing were installed in the sidewalk area at each of the four street crossings.

The Community Foundation of the Ozarks’ grant enabled the city to plant nearly 5,000 native plants and 105 trees during the project. Using a wetland mix of vegetation enables lower areas exposed to the creek to tolerate stormwater fluctuations. Native prairie plants tolerant of the existing soil conditions and sporadic rainfall also were chosen; hardy and low-maintenance Buffalo grass provides the underlying turf.

Madrona Park Creek
Although some daylighting projects are not warmly received by the public because of land use changes, one project in Seattle, WA, would not have taken place had it not been initiated by private citizens. In fact, the daylighting of Madrona Park Creek was totally financed through grants, donations, and volunteer time and labor by more than 500 people.

Like many creeks, Madrona Park Creek had “gone underground” for the sake of roads, points out Peggy Gaynor of Gaynor Inc. in Seattle. Her company served as the landscape architect for the project.

“In the old days, the city engineers would see running water and think it would wash out the road,” she says. “As it approached to two roadways, we had to put culverts under—they just dropped it into the city storm drainage system, so it disappeared into the pipes.”

Over time, the area fell into urban decay.

“What precipitated this project is that back in 1996, neighbors of Madrona Park, a natural area of more than 10 acres in Seattle, got tired of the fact that this place was neglected and full of invasive species, homeless people, drugs, and stealing,” says Gaynor. “It was very close to the inner city, just east of downtown. It’s a stone’s throw from a very diverse and socio-economically mixed neighborhood. These neighbors decided to take back their park.

“In doing this, their goal was to get rid of the invasive species that was making it so dark and foreboding so that good people were afraid to go into the woods,” she adds. “They brought me on in 1998 to create a master action plan for restoration.”

More than 500 volunteers—many through the nonprofit effort called Friends of Madrona Woods—spent nearly 11 years getting the park to where it is today, having restored nearly 90% of the 10 acres to native habitat, says Gaynor.

“Daylighting was an add-on that I proposed because I have been daylighting creeks in Seattle in the urban neighborhoods for 20 years,” says Gaynor. “There are three drainages in these 10 acres. One in particular was very much a year-round stream that the city recognized as Madrona Park Creek.”

The project began in 2003 with planning and surveying, final design in 2005, and permitting and grant writing all along the way, says Gaynor.

“It’s entirely privately funded: grants, donations, sweat equity, and pro bono services by me and my consultants for a substantial portion of the work,” she adds.

Major grants of $50,000 to $100,000 or more came from sources such as NOAA and Fish America Foundation. Gaynor says the group was fortunate to get some local grants before money started to dry up due to the general economic downturn.

A substantial number of permits needed for the project—environmental, building, and grading. Construction began in spring 2007, and, five phases later, the project was completed in January 2009.

“It was a major, ambitious undertaking simply because it was difficult,” says Gaynor. “We had to put culverts under two roadways—one a major arterial.

“Each culvert undercrossing was a separate phase, because those were expensive pieces,” she adds. “We had to keep writing grants all along to have enough funds to fund the next step. But it is an immensely successful project. It’s the first, and at this point the only, complete water restoration in the city. We basically daylighted the creek from its very first drop down to the headwaters of the lake.”

Madrona Park Creek measures a quarter-mile in length and falls more than 175 vertical feet from the top down to Lake Washington. It is a spring-fed creek that was daylighted from its underground pipe to flow on the surface of the ground from its headwaters in Madrona Park Ravine through a series of pools and fish-passable weirs down to a newly created wetland cove in Lake Washington.

Part of the design included the construction of two pedestrian crossing bridges with railings.

“It’s in a ravine situation, but it’s not unsafe,” says Gaynor. “We have railings on the trail more to protect the habitat than to protect the people. Otherwise, there’d be dogs running all over.”

The project also entailed a major environmental education program for local elementary schools and the community at large, says Gaynor.

She says the daylighting of Madrona Park Creek was unique. “There are two types of creeks in Seattle and maybe in all cities,” she says. “One is very small creeks, which are entirely spring-water fed and don’t have any runoff from roads or yards coming into them, but instead just disappear into the sanitary sewer system. This one was in the stormwater system.

“The other type are the larger creeks that are essentially used by the public utilities as a trunk line for the stormwater system into which they dump all of the pipes. They have very flashy flows.”

In some ways, the first type are easier to daylight because they don’t have the flashy flows, Gaynor says, adding that because they are spring fed, they constantly hold water. That was a plus in favor of daylighting Madrona Park Creek.

“This project was deemed incredibly beneficial to migrating juvenile Chinook salmon,” says Gaynor. Various species of salmon are listed as either endangered or threatened.

“The Chinook salmon migrate right along the west coast of Lake Washington, where now we have this creek all the way to the coast along with a quarter-acre freshwater estuary wetland, which is fantastic rearing and refuge habitat for juvenile salmon,” she says. “What really made the project fly was the fact we have salmon species on that endangered species list. We were able to get several local and federal grants targeting habitat restoration for salmon.”

Gaynor has noted an “incredible increase in people’s use of the natural area and the beach area we restored. It’s just beautiful. It’s a whole new place. We’ve built all of these trails that are accessible and attractive. There are a lot of users of the place.

“In our design, we had to allow for the fact that we’re going to have a lot more people and they’re going to love it to death,” she adds. “We went back into micro-topography that exists on the site to try to fit the creek in as gently as possible.”

For example, the 175-foot drop was fit in to accommodate that goal.

“There are no steep drop-offs in terms of people and their access,” notes Gaynor. “We do have a couple of waterfalls and cascades, which is really beautiful visually and audibly. You can hear the water—it’s like being in the mountains. That’s been a major plus. That’s why it’s so attractive. We have the Cascade and Olympic mountains here; this is almost like you’re up high in the mountains, and yet you’re five minutes from downtown.”

Gaynor says the biggest challenge in the project was dealing with Seattle’s permitting process—“the processes and the hoops we had to jump through for design reviews and the public process,” she notes. “It was costly. The permits for the city alone probably cost us upwards of $50,000. It almost took two years.”

Municipalities generally have little experience with permitting for creek daylighting, Gaynor says. “It doesn’t fit into the boxes. You’d have better luck permitting a gas station. Essentially, we were paying for all of staff in the city’s permitting department to do on-the-job learning in how to deal with this.”

The Friends of Madrona Park Creek had networked with local politicians to try to cut through the red tape, she notes. “For a less persevering group, it would have been a real chilling factor—it could have killed the project.”

She adds, “We had to do wetland delineation reports and a lot of technical reports. I had wonderful subconsultants who provided a lot of that work pro bono, but that would have added extraordinarily to the cost. Here was a group trying to do good, and they’re getting put through the rigors.”

Special permits were needed for each of the culverts, a process that Gaynor notes was “time-consuming and expensive.”

In contrast, dealing with state and federal agencies was hardly an effort, Gaynor says.

“We had to get environmental grants because we were right on the shoreline,” she says. “We got a hydraulic permit approval from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife in two weeks at no cost, and we got our Army Corps of Engineers permit in three weeks. Our city permit for grading and land use took almost two years. That says something to me.

“The federal and state agencies that are really trying to promote this kind of restoration were very cooperative and very timely. So many people were afraid of getting permits from the state and the corps, but we found just the opposite.”

It’s more common that creeks in rural areas are daylighted than those in cities, Gaynor notes.

“I’m not aware of that many cities that have done it,” she says. “It’s for all sorts of reasons—either it’s the land use, cost, or permitting difficulties, or you just don’t have a community group take these things on. These aren’t things I’ve seen cities doing so much on their own. At this point, with the economy, it’s considered a frill.”

The daylighting of Madrona Park Creek was completely a grassroots effort, she says. “This project would hardly have been recognized, let alone daylighted by the city; it was not on their radar screen in any way, shape, or form. That’s what’s so remarkable. This is a group of laypeople volunteering their time, which would have cost the city what we’ve been conservatively estimating $3 to $5 million for design and construction. We built it—design and construction—for about $850,000. So the city got a great deal.”

In addition to the immense community support, the fact that the project was on public property and did not involve land acquisition was helpful, notes Gaynor. Another positive factor is the educational component to urban habitat restoration or creek daylighting.

“There are so many urban dwellers who don’t rub up against nature,” she says. “In the landscape architecture world, we’ve claimed this phrase, ‘nature deficit disorder,’ to describe people in the cities who are afraid of nature,” she says. “This has been a real opportunity for folks to get up close and personal with nature.

“There are at least 500 people who have done so, and it hopefully has improved their lives and given them greater awareness of the environment. Certainly this is all about salmon, so we’ve taken every opportunity to educate. You never know what will come out of it.”   

About the Author

Carol Brzozowski

Carol Brzozowski specializes in topics related to resource management and technology.

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