The majority of people are not conscious of the historic streams that have been buried– other than for the curious few who question, for circumstances, why the street in downtown New York City is named “Canal.” We have actually buried streams all across the country– in Los Angeles, D.C, and more. The U.S.’s Epa estimates that we’ve buried 98 percent of the streams that once crossed through Baltimore’s metropolitan core.
We’ve buried these streams, we haven’t put them to rest. They are still streaming, and still take in all the things we shed, spill, drop, and leak into our landscape. As rain runs over paved streets and pathways, it sweeps everything from the metropolitan world straight into the nearby waterbody. Urban overflow makes its method to these hidden streams.
Unpiped, healthy streams naturally filter much of the water that streams into them. Smaller sized streams are arbitrators of human effluent: getting the waste discharged from point sources (like commercial pipes and wastewater treatment plants) and from nonpoint sources (like runoff from streets and agricultural activities) and using tools like microorganisms, algae, rocks, and soil to slowly discharge and change excess nutrients and pollutants. Unwittingly entrusted with filtering chemicals and solutes, natural streams become highly essential to human health. And when we bury streams, we rob ourselves of our natural purifiers.
Streams generally burst with life: algae, fish, and invertebrates. A stream is home to microorganisms that require light, nutrients, and a natural stream bottom. These microbes are the power gamers that get rid of those extreme nutrients. However the majority of ghost streams don’t host much life at all. When we bury a stream underground, we cut it off from light and the stream bottom. Just nutrients remain, which are funneled downstream, blending city overflow with fresh water in the nearby river.
“Nutrients” sound good, but they can create chaos in downstream waterbodies, polluting waterways, creating coastal dead zones, and feeding thick blossoms of hazardous cyanobacteria.
Thankfully, towns are starting to acknowledge the importance of these buried streams in an effort to minimize the terrors of city overflow. Merely letting locals understand a stream exists below them, which the stream gets everything, neglected, that goes down the drain, motivates individuals to keep their waste out of the secret streams.
For instance, little frog statues decorate city drains in Blacksburg, Virginia, marking the drains straight above the local ghost stream. It’s a callback to the Ancient Romans, who marked their buried streams with shrines to “Cloaca Maxima” or the drain goddess. Baltimore stencils its storm drains, and Richmond, Virginia and Dayton, Ohio desire to do the same utilizing the work of local artists. Entry points to waterways are decorated with paintings of fish, octopuses, and otters surrounded by cautionary reminders like “all water drains to the sea” and “only rain should decrease the drain.” Other storm drain murals are embellished with landscape paintings of picturesque wildlife, images of kelp with plastic and litter for companions, or paintings of fish where grated drains function as mouths.
Some places are going even more, ripping up pavement, shattering pipes, and hammering away the concrete to exhume ghost streams. Daylighting, as the treatment is called, opens the streams up to the sun and brings back the nearby land connection. This begins the process of recovery, re-growing plant life, and motivating microbes and algae to come back. It’s excellent, but unburying a stream is costly and needs strong neighborhood support, and community support for daylighting a stream can’t be summoned if homeowners aren’t familiar with the buried stream itself. Art is a fantastic primary step.
By acknowledging ghost streams and getting locals engaged, we can pursue recovery the waterways by limiting the toxins put into them, and even ultimately unearthing them from the ground.