Daylighting Revelstoke’s lost creeks can return natural aquatic ecosystems

A century ago, burying Revelstoke’s natural creeks was thought of as progress. Restoring these natural ecosystems can bring many benefits to the community.

A band on parade on Second Street West in 1908 crosses a bridge over a creek, which has since been culverted and buried underground (notice the Modern building and the old City Hall building in the background). Daylighting these lost creeks could have many benefits for the community. Photo: Revelstoke Museum & Archives

This article first appeared in print in the January 2019 issue of Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine. It appeared as part of our February Green Issue supplement that explored stories with an environmental focus.

One of the most fascinating things I learned about several European cities is that there are entire neighbourhoods buried beneath the streets and buildings that adorn postcards. Streets below streets with three-storey buildings holding up everything above the surface.

In Revelstoke, we tend to think our city’s history isn’t very old, and yet we’ve buried things much older than those European neighbourhoods. Approximately 100 years ago, many of the creeks that drained off Mt. Revelstoke were culverted and buried to make way for development. If you walk along the banks of the Columbia River in winter, you can see and hear the creeks spilling out from culverts.

This early push to bury streams and wetlands was a practical one. Water causes problems for roads and buildings. Burying them seemed like the easiest option. With time, the history and environmental benefit of these creeks has been erased and buried beneath our own streets and buildings.

A recently completed stream daylighting project in Vancouver. Photo: City of Vancouver

Revelstoke Museum and Archives curator Cathy English said that parts of downtown Revelstoke used to be much wetter. A recent downtown excavation found soils indicating the existence of former wetlands. So far, English has been able to find little information on Revelstoke’s old creeks. Tapping Creek once ran alongside Campbell Ave, and flowed under a bridge on Second Street. It then continued south and carved out the dry gulch next to Centennial Avenue, before running past the old smelter and emptying into the Columbia River just a few feet south of the old CPR landing station. Now it races at unnatural speeds through a culvert under Campbell before flowing into the Columbia River. Another buried creek, known as Brewer’s Creek, provided water to Revelstoke’s first brewery.

This practice of burying creeks and wetlands was common throughout Canadian cities in the early 1900s. What’s becoming more common today is that many of these cities are now looking at ways of daylighting the streams again. Daylighting is exactly what it sounds like: bringing sunlight back to buried watercourses.

There are several reasons why culverted streams aren’t as desirable as natural ones. Some of Revelstoke’s culverts are 100 years old and are overdue for replacement. The cost of replacing the culverts is comparable to the cost of daylighting.

Culverted streams tend to reduce overall water quality because they travel at a higher velocity than natural streams. The higher velocity increases the amount of pollutants that are transported and washed into our natural water bodies. Natural streams, by comparison riffle over debris in the riverbed which oxygenates the water, while plants and microorganisms work to “fix” pollutants.

A pond created in a new stream daylighting project in Vancouver. Photo: City of Vancouver

Flooding risk is increased in two ways. First, storm sewers and culverts can fill up faster than they can empty, causing them to overflow. They can also get blocked with debris, as we saw this past November when a blocked culvert and high rain event caused flooding on Highway 23 North. Finally, flooding risk is increased because water can’t infiltrate into the ground. A natural creek bed allows some of the water to infiltrate into the ground, reducing the total amount of surface water flow and capturing pollutants before they reach higher velocity creeks.

Beyond the ways that culverted streams can underperform when compared to natural ones, there are several reasons we may want to start daylighting in Revelstoke.

First, these natural systems can be valued for how well they help reduce the need for costly engineered systems and achieve the same or better results naturally. Gibsons is the first community in B.C. that has an eco-asset strategy that recognizes that, “Nature plays an integral role in a municipal infrastructure system.” They consider both engineered and natural assets as a part of its municipal infrastructure, and recognize that nature can help reduce risk, and provide cost savings (by doing the work for free) while maintaining healthy local ecosystems.

Second, we can create stronger links to our heritage and history by daylighting streams, naming them, and better telling our natural history. This creates a stronger connection to the natural world. Rather than burying and hiding creeks and pretending they don’t exist, we can bring them back and create beautiful natural public spaces within the city.

Third, we can bring back life to these watercourses. Life is almost non-existent under the culvert. Daylighting can bring back the vegetation, invertebrates and other animals that call our creeks home.

There are several potential daylighting projects in town. My two favourite being creating natural community park space around the culverted creek running through the Mountain View School site, and daylighting Tapping Creek along the Campbell Avenue median. As you wander through town this winter, keep your eyes and ears open for your own favourite creeks to shed some more light on.

Fraser owns Selkirk Planning & Design and works as a community planner and urban designer in Revelstoke. He’s a working dad who loves his job, snowboarding, the Maple Leafs and punk rock.