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D.C. Brings Underground Streams Back to Light

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Broad Branch Stream hasn't existed in decades, but now the D.C. Department of Environment is looking to unearth it.
D.C. Department of Environment
Broad Branch Stream hasn't existed in decades, but now the D.C. Department of Environment is looking to unearth it.

Can you make a river appear out of nowhere? Well, kind of. And now the D.C.’s Department of the Environment is doing just that for the very first time in the city: Taking a stream that was diverted underground nearly a century ago and restoring it above ground.

The process is known as "daylighting," and the first stream to get this treatment is a tributary of Broad Branch Stream in the Forest Hills neighborhood in Northwest D.C. We spoke to project manager Steve Saari to find out what it takes to resurrect a stream, and what other streams could rise up next.

Why Streams Were Piped Underground in the Past

“In the 1800s and 1900s, this is the way cities developed. We wanted to get stormwater quickly away from houses, we wanted to develop densely, and we ended up piping those streams and building over top of them. Suitland Parkway — if you look at Suitland Parkway it is — basically follows and old stream. Piney Branch Road, Spring Road, Broad Branch Road — all these are examples where there were streams above ground that are now underground.”

Bringing Water-Loving Species Back to a Forgotten Stream

“We are going to see species that we haven’t seen here. Because we don’t even have water, we don’t have frogs and amphibians that would normally be here in the spring. I guarantee you this spring there will be frogs and amphibians here that weren’t here previously. Just downstream there are wood ducks that live in the stream. They’re going to start coming up this direction. We’re going to start to see species like that, we’re going to see plants that you wouldn’t find except for in these water-loving environments.”

Excited for the First Project of its Kind in D.C.

“It’s very exciting for all of us. It’s the first time it’s ever happened in the District. It’s one of a couple dozen that have happened nationwide and worldwide. So it’s definitely a unique thing, and it’s taken us about seven years to get to this place to where we’re doing the construction. And of course the construction is only gonna take a few months, so I’m enjoying every moment of the construction.”

Music: "I'm Beginning to See the Light" by Coleman Hawkins from The Best of Coleman Hawkins

The Broad Branch Stream Restoration and Culvert Daylighting Project from 4Site Studios on Vimeo.

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