Free the underground rivers

Exhuming the waterways that pass under developed areas and restoring their natural flow and width is known as “daylighting”. And in the Northeast, you don’t have to look far to find once-lost rivers that have been brought back to light. From Providence to New York to Boston’s Emerald Collar, these forgotten waters are surfacing to rejuvenate parks, jump-start local economies and create larger reservoirs that can prevent flooding during increasingly dangerous storms.

“The worst thing you can do for a creek is put it in a pipe,” says Julie Wood, deputy director of the Charles River Watershed Association, a nonprofit whose mission includes restoration projects along the Charles and its tributaries.

Stony Brook rushes through the Stony Brook Preserve before being swallowed by the conduit that takes him underground.Lane Turner / Globe Staff

But for more than a century, putting streams in pipes or covering them with roads was commonplace for cities. To create a more paved ground for their expanding urban infrastructure, cities routed troublesome waterways in culverts and conduits, covering the pipes with concrete.

At times, these stream revetments have mitigated environmental damage to cities. Stony Brook was buried in the late 19th century after spring floods repeatedly inundated homes in Roxbury. Capping the rivers has also prevented residents from using them for the informal dumping of trash and sewage – a fate that once befell Boston’s Muddy River, which flows from Jamaica Pond through the Emerald Necklace park system to at the Charles River.

Rather than bury the Muddy River, the city of Boston decided to keep most of it daylit. Landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted was commissioned to transform the river from a clogged channel into a meandering river with its own system of ponds. This improved the flow and water quality of the Muddy River, and gave the trees and shrubs Olmsted planted along the creek a chance to thrive.

“When you make the light of day [a river], you basically bring it back to life,” says Wood. ” There will be sun ; there will be more oxygen in the river for the fish to breathe. Animals, plants and the local ecosystem may have some hope of living there and thriving.

Stony Brook passes under the Enneking Parkway in Boston.Lane Turner / Globe Staff

It’s not just flora and fauna that can thrive when waterways are uncovered. During the 1990s, Providence lit up the Moshassuck and Woonasquatucket rivers by removing road and rail infrastructure that had covered them for decades. This sparked the construction of Waterplace Park, a lagoon and paved promenade which became the home ground of the WaterFire festival led by artist Barnaby Evans. Since its first river lighting in 1994, WaterFire has drawn millions of visitors – and their wallets – to the city’s once depressed downtown. In 1997, architect Friedrich St. Florian, who designed the Providence Place Mall, called WaterFire “the jewel in the crown of Providence’s renaissance.”

Daylighting success stories like Providence show why cities like Detroit, Berkeley, CA., and Yonkers, NY have their own day-lit Lost Rivers. Over the next few years, New York City will spend more than $130 million to excavate Tibbetts Brook, long buried beneath the Bronx.

These projects have a distinct utility for the 21st century. As hurricanes and record storm surges become a regular part of life for residents of cities like New York, the need for resilience in the face of climate change strengthens the case for natural lighting of waterways and underground rivers.

The storms that once prompted U.S. cities to bury rivers like Tibbetts Brook and Stony Brook are getting bigger and deadlier as they cross warming oceans. All that excess water will have to go elsewhere, as Bostonians have learned the hard way. Last September, vehicles on Storrow Drive were immobilized by rising floodwaters after the remnants of Hurricane Ida swept through the city.

Something similar happened in New York. When the conduit system containing Tibbetts Creek was flooded by stormwater, the released creek waters overwhelmed nearby roads such as the Major Deegan Highway. Tibbetts Creek Daylighting aims to prevent this from happening again by adding more capacity to the waterway.

Two daylighting projects in Boston could help us better withstand future floods.

The Major Deegan Freeway in New York was flooded last September after Hurricane Ida.GREGG VIGLIOTTI/NYT

Since 2013, the US Army Corps of Engineers has been expanding the boundaries of the Muddy River. It’s essentially an overdue upgrade to Olmsted’s efforts to keep the river lit by day. Following Olmsted’s initial success, parts of the Muddy River have been covered over by larger roads – including Storrow Drive, which runs above where the Muddy River meets the Charles. Further inland, silt and sediment runoff from adjacent roads accumulated in the river, limiting its capacity. The first phase of the Muddy River Restoration Project involved clearing the bend in the river that runs past the Landmark Center, and the ongoing second phase involves dredging all accumulated sediment from the Riverway and Fens.

Waterfowl paddle the Muddy River where they curve at the Landmark Center.Lane Turner / Globe Staff

Then there is the Charlesgate. Here, at the crossroads of the Back Bay, Fenway and Kenmore Square, the Muddy River and its banks are dwarfed by the Bowker Overpass. Walking towards the Charles, the Muddy River disappears into a 270 foot long culvert that passes under Storrow Drive. A twist of pretzel ramps connecting the roadway to the viaduct prevent pedestrians from reaching the Esplanade. But over the next few years, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation will rebuild the eastbound Storrow Bridge and bring the westbound riverside lane further inland, making the last buried section of the river Muddy ready for the light of day – an opportunity the Emerald Necklace Conservancy and the Charlesgate Alliance have seized.

The River Muddy at Charlesgate outside Kenmore Square, just before the river plunges under Storrow Drive and empties into the Charles.Lane Turner / Globe Staff

Working closely with the Department of Transportation, the two organizations plan to revitalize the Charlesgate area by digging the final stretch of the Muddy River. This will alleviate local flooding by removing the current choke point where the River Muddy is forced into the long, narrow passage that passes under Storrow and adjacent land. But the natural light from the river will also allow the nearby multi-use paths to join the paths of the Esplanade. “It’s about connecting these systems that are not just local but regional. It’s how you can get from Watertown to Quincy by bike or on foot,” says Karen Mauney-Brodek, president of the Emerald Necklace Conservancy. “It is a critical link that has been broken. It can be reconstructed both from a cyclist and pedestrian point of view and also from a river point of view.

Mauney-Brodek is quick to note that unlike many large projects that involve innovating in densely populated cities, Charlesgate’s daylighting has been championed by all parties involved – neighborhood residents, businesses, legislators and institutions. of State. “This project has no villain,” jokes Mauney-Brodek. Part of this broad support, however, is the fact that natural lighting from the Muddy River in Charlesgate will not cause significant disruption to people living and working in the area. The trickiest stage of the project – consolidating the eastbound and westbound lanes of Storrow – was going to happen anyway.

Daylighting from other waterways in the area would be a harder sell for Boston residents. Northeastern students have created plans to uncover Stony Brook where it crosses the college campus, but unearthing the entire waterway seems unlikely: it would require digging up yards or residential roads in several neighborhoods. A project like this would also take up real estate in a city that urgently needs more housing. These are realities that can derail a daylighting initiative – long before stakeholders start wondering how much the project is going to cost and who is going to pay for it.

All the more reason to marvel at the natural light serendipity of the Muddy River in Charlesgate, which is only a small part of the $80 million cost of the Department of Transportation project in the area, according to the Emerald Necklace Conservancy.

It’s one thing to size the site on a map. But when you actually go there – as I did, immediately after my Stony Brook bushwhack – imagining the river lit by day and its banks revitalized is hardly a stretch. I follow the Muddy under several exit ramps from Storrow Drive, while the roar of cars above my head drown out the lapping of icy water. When I get to the culvert opening where the river disappears, I keep walking until I’m on top of a trash-strewn patch of grass next to the whoosh of Storow. I can see the benches by the river, the dog park and the trees that will be installed here as the daylighting project progresses. I hear the roar of floodwaters pouring into the Charles, freed from the stranglehold of the extended culvert. Perhaps the same treatment could be applied to dozens of lost waterways across the Commonwealth, such as Fall River’s Quequechan River or Cambridge’s Miller River, which was not only buried but partially filled with landfills.

I have to imagine these things, because right now the part of the Muddy River I’m near is still out of sight.

But that’s no longer out of mind.

Miles Howard is a journalist in Boston. Follow him on Twitter @milesperhoward.

Bonny J. Streater