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Around the Water Cooler: Showing Buried Streams the Daylight

2012 September 13
Pittsburgh Point park and North Shore

Rivers and streams offer many benefits.

By Lahne Mattas-Curry  

I’m from Pittsburgh. A city of rivers—three to be exact. If there’s one thing you know about Pittsburgh, besides being a former steel town, it’s the rivers. (Pop quiz: Can you name all three and spell them correctly?) 

Rivers and streams in cities offer many benefits – from recreation and swimming to aesthetic and economic impacts. For example, the North Shore in Pittsburgh is home to the Steelers (Here we go!!) and the Pirates (Let’s go Bucs!) along with a variety of shops and restaurants. It’s a short walk over the Roberto Clemente Bridge from downtown Pittsburgh and is dotted with parks and bike paths. Riverfront investment generates economic benefits like increased property values, too. But more than the economic impact, the beautiful landscapes and wildlife habitat lead to healthy ecosystems. Hard to imagine that some cities decide to bury the rivers in pipes and build OVER the rivers instead of AROUND the rivers and streams. 

But that is what has happened in many cities—large and small—around the country. As the population grew and urban developers wanted to expand on a plot of land with a stream or river on it, they diverted it, confined it in concrete channels, or buried it in pipes underground. 

EPA scientists and engineers are now learning that buried streams may cause problems with our water quality and have offered up a simple solution: unbury the streams. Daylighting is actually the technical term for “unburying” these rivers and streams. Often, streams buried in pipes underground are also combined with the cities sewer pipes. This is another cause of combined sewer overflow and pollution in our waterways. 

According to the Rocky Mountain Institute, daylighting can improve downstream water quality by exposing water to sunlight, air, soil, and vegetation, all of which help process and remove pollutants. EPA scientists believe daylighting streams will have a significant impact removing excess nitrogen and phosphorous, too, an environmental challenge many watersheds face. 

I can’t even imagine a fall Sunday morning sitting outside enjoying an early lunch at Bettis Grille before a Steelers game on the North Shore without the view of the river. That view is one of the things that makes Pittsburgh special. It should be something that makes other cities special—and healthy—as well. 

About the Author: Lahne Mattas-Curry works with EPA’s Safe and Sustainable Water Resources team and  blogs regularly about  water.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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8 Responses leave one →
  1. Arman.- permalink
    September 13, 2012

    Bury Me Down By The River…..
    (Song by: The Bee Gees)

    Once in a while,we are thirsty to watch succesfully city like Pittsburgh a city of rivers which have many benefits and greener. Thanks Lahne. Congratulations……!

    • Lahne permalink*
      September 21, 2012

      Thanks Arman, it’s a beautiful city and so glad there are the rivers.

  2. Liping Li permalink
    September 13, 2012

    Agree. In China, more and more rivers, even lakes are buried to make land for building houses or planting crops.
    This is really a problem.

    • Lahne permalink*
      September 21, 2012

      Maybe you can share some of the research on buried streams with developers and city planners there. China has a great opportunity to be one of the “greenest” countries as it develops. Definitely learn from our mistakes. Cities are beautiful and full of great architecture, but even better and more attractive with trees, plants and rivers above ground. More costly to “unbury” than to not bury to begin with. Good luck!

  3. Stephen Colley permalink
    September 14, 2012

    No one knows more about the benefits of keeping rivers exposed than the residents of San Antonio, Texas. For residents and the millions of tourists who come to visit and walk along the famous River Walk, we came very close to burying the river under city streets. Only due to the efforts of Maury Maverick (a TRUE Maverick) and his relationship with President Franklin Roosevelt, developing the River Walk was an infrastructure improvement project that put people to work during the depression, including artisans. Otherwise, the river would have remained polluted and buried and San Antonio would have been just another urban city. We need to encourage these kind of projects once again.

    • Lahne permalink*
      September 21, 2012

      I absolutely agree. San Antonio is a beautiful city. I drove through around the holidays once and the River Walk was breathtaking. So glad it wasn’t buried – besides, think of the economic impact from tourism alone!

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