Around the Water Cooler: Showing Buried Streams the Daylight

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.

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