Buried Rivers and Zombie Creeks

Happy Halloween from Cuyahoga SWCD!

Zombies. They’re not alive, but they’re not quite dead, either - much like many of our urban streams that have been buried and confined to culverts underground. And like zombies, these buried streams still resemble their living form: they transport water, sediment and debris downstream from their watershed. However, they are often lifeless, or only support the hardiest of aquatic organisms.

Why do we bury stream channels? There are many reasons. Some good: roadway crossings, to prevent the spread of disease because the creek is an open sewer (for example, Morgana Run in Cleveland was encased in order to prevent the spread of cholera). Some not so good: to accommodate development, improve drainage, control flooding, or reduce the risk of erosion. And sometimes, creeks are placed in culverts for a good reason, but done in such a way that they have a larger than necessary negative impact on the stream channel and aquatic habitat. This happens a lot with road crossings.

Regardless of the reason, creeks suffer many negative impacts when they are buried for any significant length:

  • They lose floodplain access and flood storage, passing stormwater and flooding problems downstream.
  • They no longer process and cycle nutrients as effectively, instead transporting more pollutants downstream.
  • They no longer provide habitat or natural corridors for fish and other animals.
  • The water velocity, lack of substrate and commonly-present drop at a culvert outlet prevents the passage of fish and other aquatic organisms.

Fortunately we can bring many of these zombie rivers back to life! Daylighting is a process through which buried streams are removed from culverts and restored to a more natural, living state. While not appropriate for all culverted stream segments – those that remain part of the sanitary sewer system would make poor candidates – daylighting is a promising method to restore the benefits of natural stream channels to the urban landscape.

Even if daylighting a buried stream is unlikely in the near future, we can begin to build awareness of our zombie creeks and support for raising them from the dead by painting their path on our streets or with stream crossing signs and by reducing the amount of polluted runoff that drains to them, until the day that we can bring our buried rivers back to life!

Additional Resources:

2014 NPR Story – More Cities Bringing Buried Streams Back To Life

2012 Documentary Film – Lost Rivers

American Rivers report – Daylighting Streams: Breathing Life into Urban Streams and Communities

Blog Author: Jared Bartley, Rocky River Watershed Coordinator

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