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Stream Restoration and Daylighting : Opportunities in The Pittsburgh Region

Richard Pinkham
Water Management Consultant, Arvada, Colorado

The 3 Rivers 2nd Nature stream restoration and daylighting program addresses stream restoration within cities. We maintain that living streams represent a core value relevant to a successful new economy city. We use the phrase "living streams" to emphasize that our local streams are ecosystems, not merely urban infrastructure. Living streams provide for a wide range of essential urban needs: water quality improvement, runoff management, recreational and educational opportunities, beautiful landscapes, and wildlife habitat. They support property values and generate other economic benefits. A particular 3 Rivers - 2nd Nature focus is stream "daylighting." Daylighting is the act of removing streams from underground pipes and culverts, restoring some of the form and function of historic streams. Daylighting is the most profound form of stream restoration, recreating a surface waterway where "nothing" exists now.

We aim to identify daylighting opportunities in Allegheny County and encourage development of daylighting demonstration sites. Our program takes a strategic, conceptual approach. Our interest is in framing issues, communicating opportunities, and building constituencies. The effort is structured to be iterative and replicable, both within sub-areas of the county and as a model that can be applied beyond.

Our goals are:

Short Term
: Develop efficient and effective expert and public processes to identify high-potential daylighting sites and encourage initiation of appropriate projects.

Long Term:
Change expert and public consciousness about the benefits of open waterways and functioning urban aquatic ecosystems, and effect the protection and restoration of those ecosystems in order to realize their ecological, economic, infrastructure, social and other values.

The agenda for living streams

Data on culverting permits from the Pennsylvania DEP show that Pittsburgh-area streams are still being buried. It is also clear that development threatens the ecological integrity of many local watersheds. The available data on stream conditions and consideration of the historical and current factors leading to degradation and outright loss of streams suggest that a multi-faceted agenda, outlined in this report, is required to establish an ethic-and real results-for living streams in Allegheny County:

  • Protect currently open streams from further degradation.
  • Improve the condition of open but degraded streams.
  • Daylight buried streams in appropriate locations.

For more information see : New Life for Buried Streams

A Q&A with Richard Pinkham
Adjunct Research Scholar and Consultant
with Rocky Mountain Institute and the
author of "Daylighting: New Life For Buried Streams."

What is daylighting?

The term "daylighting" describes projects that deliberately restore to the open air some or all of the flow of a previously covered river, creek, or stormwater drainage. Daylighting projects liberate waterways that were buried in culverts or pipes, covered by decks, or otherwise removed from view. Daylighting re-establishes a waterway in its old channel where feasible, or in a new channel threaded between the buildings, streets, parking lots, and playing fields now on the land. Some daylighting projects recreate wetlands, ponds or estuaries.

Is the daylighting of streams becoming a trend?

Yes. In the U.S. there are at least 20 daylighting projects that have been completed since 1984, and currently at least another 20 are in various stages of development. There is a lot of activity and a remarkable sea change going on in the way communities are viewing waterways. Over the past couple hundred years, waterways were pretty much an afterthought and often considered a nuisance when it came to the development and growth of a community. But now, people are placing greater value on environmental amenities such as natural waterways. People are also finding that there are many positive economic benefits to restoring streams--it often increases the vitality, and the property values, of surrounding areas.

Why is daylighting becoming more popular now?

There is a conjunction of several factors that are making daylighting popular. We have a lot deteriorating stream and stormwater infrastructure in the country today. As pipes fail, we find that it is often cheaper to open a channel than to put a new pipe back in the ground. There is also tremendous desire in many communities to make the most of their environmental assets. Restoring a stream that was lost gets a lot of attention and there is a lot of desire to do that. There is also a growing concern about water quality, and daylighting can improve downstream water quality by exposing water to sunlight, air, soil, and vegetation, all of which help process and remove pollutants. Daylighting can also reduce flooding caused by under-capacity culverts, since an open stream typically has a wider cross-section and a greater channel depth than the pipe it replaces. This is important because many pipes historically were not sized adequately to carry the extra runoff that comes with upstream development. Another trend is that people are becoming more aware that previous approaches to water management are not always absolute. For example, people know that some large dams are either coming down or that the prospect of them coming down is being taken seriously. That helps spark the idea that maybe the way the local stream has been handled could be improved.

How long has the concept and practice of daylighting streams been around?

It's been going on for about two decades. A few projects took place in the '70s. A seminal project occurred in '84 in Berkeley, California when 200 feet of Strawberry Creek was brought out of a culvert and the stream was daylighted in a new park that was created in an abandoned railroad yard. That got a lot of attention and sparked other projects. Things have really picked up in the last couple of years. What are some of the intangible benefits that daylighting can bring? There are really important intangible aspects to daylighting projects that shouldn't be underestimated. Daylighting is a pretty radical thing to do--to bring up a stream that has been buried--and people find a lot of power in setting right something they feel was previously messed up. There is also the impact that water has on us emotionally and psychologically. Often the more urban a project is, the more significant that is. People are drawn to a place where they can hear moving water. It can have a restorative and beneficial affect on people and they really appreciate that in the middle of a city environment.

Can daylighting work in urban environments?

Yes, in fact, daylighting is typically done in urban and suburban areas which have higher infrastructure repair costs and the biggest problems with urban run-off, stormwater management, and water quality, all which can be improved with daylighting. Urban areas are also the most in need of the other, intangible benefits of daylighting such as bringing back a sense of nature to heavily developed areas. Successful projects have been done in many large urban areas such as Kalamazoo, Michigan and Berkeley, which is currently studying an additional project in the core downtown area. In addition, many cities are recognizing the value of restoring their riverfront areas--seeing the success of places such as Riverwalk in Austin, Texas--and the daylighting of smaller tributary streams can often fit in well with those larger riverfront projects. Also, daylighting of streams within parks makes tremendous sense and there are often great opportunities within urban parks for projects. It is true, however, that urban projects are typically very expensive and it is often more difficult to restore a stream in an urban area back to a more natural state.

Do many urban residents have a sense of their community's water resources?

Many people don't realize that cities often are located where they are because of rivers and streams, which used to be a much more prominent part of the urban landscape. You see the legacy today with the names of subdivisions and streets and there is often a historic reason for that. Consider "Mill Street." It's a common name in many towns for a road where a water-powered mill was once located. And most people don't understand how many streams are actually running underneath their feet. There have been some communities that have created "disappeared stream maps" to help residents better understand where their water resources went. A group of folks in Pittsburgh are currently doing an extensive inventory on the three rivers that come together in Pittsburgh (the Ohio, the Allegheny, and the Monongahela) to try and point out to the community what an amazing asset those rivers are. As part of that, we are discussing a daylighting project that would be linked to the riverfront work in order to provide more public access areas, greenways, and wildlife corridors.

What are the key components to a doing a successful daylighting project?

It takes a team approach to do a project well. It requires some technical expertise, people who understand water flow and channels, and the engineers need to be sensitive to the ecological aspects of these projects. You also need a biologist, botanist, or landscape architect, as much of the success of a project is related to the new vegetation along the restored stream banks. It also requires a person or group that will champion the project. You need someone who is excited about a specific project and its best if that person comes from the neighborhood. It's also very important to have someone who understands the public approval process and who can communicate effectively with stakeholders.

How important is community involvement to the success of a project?

Local involvement tends to be critical. The water management aspect of a daylighting project is a fairly straightforward exercise. It has to be done carefully and well from an engineering standpoint, but to even get to that point, you have work closely with the community and address a lot of concerns about a particular site. Neighbors and community stakeholders usually have to work through a variety of concerns, such as how the new channel will perform, what will it look like, and what sort of natural and social changes the change to the stream might bring to a specific local area. For example, when streams are daylighted and the area is improved, it often means that the area becomes more popular. For some neighbors, that's not always a viewed as a positive change.

Are daylighting projects expensive?

It depends on the situation. Projects in urban environments tend to cost much more. Another key cost factor is how much excavation is required. It also depends on whether or not everything is paid for at its highest costs, such as the design work, construction, restoration, and landscaping. If everything is paid for at full market rates, than $1,000 per linear foot of restored stream is not uncommon. But many projects can be done--and have been--at far less cost than that. These projects require technical design expertise and heavy earthmoving, but clever project organizers in several cities have secured donations of those services and used groups of volunteers for landscaping and planting.

Does daylighting make economic sense?

There are a number of case studies where it was clear that daylighting would be less expensive than putting a culvert back in, so that's one clear economic benefit. Another is that property values have gone up substantially in the areas around newly daylighted streams. People like to be near water and are willing to pay more to be near water--as "riverfront" real estate often demonstrates. Parks that are improved with daylighting projects also draw more people, which can benefit near-by businesses.

Why did you compile and write the daylighting report?

The report has two purposes. One is to show that daylighting projects are exciting and doable and very worth considering for a community. The second is to show that these projects require an appropriate site, they require appropriate design and they require a lot of community involvement. Daylighting is an emerging and increasing phenomenon. It's important that projects be well done so that there aren't any notable failures. It is key that people know how successful projects should be done.

How can I get a copy of the daylighting report?

"Daylighting: New Life for Buried Streams" is available on-line in PDF format at no charge on RMI's website, . The illustrated, spiral-bound report may be ordered for $12.00, plus shipping and handling, from RMI's online bookstore, or by contacting RMI's publications department at 1-800-333-5903. What is your experience with water resource management ? I work on integrating multiple aspects of water resource management, including water supply planning, water conservation, stormwater management, wastewater treatment, and stream restoration.. At RMI, I've managed many projects, including research studies, scenario planning efforts, intensive design workshops, modeling studies, and publications, all related to water resource management.

Contact: Richard Pinkham, RMI (303) 422-6677