Much of a creek that once ran through Anchorage is now in underground pipes. A group wants to return it to the daylight.
An Anchorage group wants the city to take a closer look at reviving a creek that once flowed through town by “daylighting” the waterway.
During decades of development in Midtown Anchorage, Fish Creek was partially routed into underground drainage pipes. Now, a group called Friends of Fish Creek is advocating for the upstream section to flow again at the surface.
Everyone seems to acknowledge that bringing the creek into the open won’t be easy. But advocates say such a move will transform the creek into a prized community asset, running through the heart of town and into Spenard.
“We’ve never tackled anything like this in our city before, and what’s really cool about it is how we can co-exist with our natural landscape,” said Karen Button, the group’s president. “And Anchorage is still young enough that we have that opportunity.”
Friends of Fish Creek members say it can be rehabilitated in sections, to manage costs.
Anchorage voters last month approved a $320,000 bond to pay for a study of the daylighting idea.
But bond attorneys for Anchorage have informed city officials that a study can’t be paid for with a bond, which typically funds capital assets, said Lance Wilber, the municipality’s public works director.
However, Anchorage Assembly member Austin Quinn-Davidson, who led the effort to get the item on the ballot, said she plans to pursue other funding sources.
Restoration efforts go from ‘crazy to cool’
The study, if it’s funded and gets underway, will help determine how and whether the project should be pursued.
About five years ago when the Fish Creek group formed, people thought daylighting the creek sounded crazy, Button said.
But restoration efforts around the country — including the ongoing recovery of Eklutna River northeast of Anchorage — have changed views, she said.
People are increasingly interested in “green infrastructure” projects like this one — using natural features to manage water and build resilience to climate change, she said.
“It’s gone from crazy to cool, and that just tells me how far we’ve come,” Button said.
Quinn-Davidson said the study, requested by the Fish Creek group, would be a “visioning process” with public hearings to see what’s possible, she said.
Maybe Anchorage can create something like the River Walk in San Antonio, Texas, she said. The flood-control project on the San Antonio River is an open-air tourist attraction below city streets, lined with trees and shops.
“It would take some real vision and money, but it doesn’t have to happen all at once,” Quinn-Davidson said.
Maybe sections can be daylighted as developers undertake projects, she said.
“That could be a nice asset for development,” she said.
Quinn-Davidson said she’ll push for other funding sources for the study. After all, voters approved the measure. The money could come possibly come from the American Rescue Plan Act, she said.
The Fish Creek that remains today is often small and sometimes grimy. Its lower portion flows through much of Spenard and Turnagain, accompanied at times by a bike trail.
The creek begins at a spring far to the east, in a wooded area near medical offices and the intersection of Lake Otis Parkway and Tudor Road. It soon heads into the city’s underground drainage system.
But here and there, pieces of the historic creek remain. They’re often dry ditches strewn with trash, unless it rains or snow melts.
During a recent bike tour of the creek’s historical route, some of the original banks contained mucky brown water.
“We built over the top of it, but the creek keeps trying to flow,” said Jed Smith, a Friends of Fish Creek board member who led the tour.
Sometimes, the creek remnants ducked behind houses and businesses, cutting off access. It smelled like sewage in a couple spots.
In the early 1950s, the creek was thin and moved slowly across what would become Midtown. It lost its shape in marshy areas, but grew more defined in Spenard. It was fed by wetlands, unlike other Anchorage creeks that start in mountains, Button said.
As Anchorage boomed, water sources were paved over and dried up, she said.
Builders scraped away spongy peat and replaced it with gravel to throw up buildings and parking lots.
An important source called Blueberry Lake was covered with gravel and asphalt, she said. The lake is gone from today’s maps, replaced by Walmart and other businesses.
To prevent flooding, city planners redirected much of the creek into underground pipes, she said.
The ponds at Cuddy Family Midtown Park are part of Fish Creek’s historical course. They were created more than a decade ago, from wetlands near the Loussac Library, to help control flooding.
The creek is temporarily daylighted there, before the waters vanish underground again.
A conceptual drawing from the group envisions the daylighted creek leaving Cuddy Family Midtown Park, and heading past the Centerpoint Business Park, with its tall buildings occupied by Hilcorp and other businesses.
The creek would cross under major streets and, after more than a mile, reconnect with the lower creek near the Minnesota-Tudor intersection.
The group says ideally, the project could support more biking trails and salmon habitat. And the creek could still deliver stormwater into Cook Inlet, with sediment removed in biofiltration areas such as grassy swales near the creek.
The project would also involve complex engineering questions, plus costly steps like acquiring land and removing asphalt and other structures.
A 2019 preliminary review by HDR Engineering took a rough look at the idea.
It said that daylighting the creek from Cuddy Park to the Minnesota-Tudor intersection could cost $56 million and is “hypothetically feasible.” Rehabilitating a smaller section, in east Spenard, would cost $16 million, the review found.
An in-depth study would provide more certainty on costs, said Bill Spencer, a civil and environmental engineer with HDR who worked on the 2019 report. It could lead to higher cost estimates.
“I wish someone had thought about this in the ‘60s, but we weren’t thinking like this in the ‘60s” said Spencer. “Once you urbanize an area, it’s really hard to change that.”
Cost and elevation among the challenges
Cook Inlet Housing Authority is planning for the possibility that the creek will one day be daylighted, said Tyler Robinson, a vice president with the authority.
The builder is working on a housing development near Spenard Road and 36th Avenue that will leave extra space along a nearby, often-dry channel of the creek, he said.
The extra room will also support a creekside trail and features like rain gardens to manage rainwater, so the area will be attractive even if the creek isn’t daylighted, Robinson said.
He said rehabilitating the creek faces big obstacles. Providing enough setback off the creek in other areas may not be easy, he said. Land will have to be acquired, possibly from reluctant property owners.
“There are engineering challenges and land-acquisition challenges,” he said.
Spencer, with HDR, said that to be a community asset with grass, trees and trails, the creek will need a wide floodplain along it.
Stream gradient issues that arise because part of the creek is now deep underground in pipes could lead to extensive digging in some areas, he said. That could bring complications.
“If you take a stream and drop it 6, 8 feet below the existing road, you run into fiber optic cables, telephone lines, existing storm drains,” he said. “There’s a huge amount of work that would have to be pulled off.”
A study will provide a closer look at those challenges and others, such as whether the expected increase in land values near the rehabilitated creek will be sufficient, Spencer said.
“And the quality of life and recreational opportunities, what are those worth?” he said. “There’s a whole bunch of analysis that the city and its residents have to look at.”
The study will consider alternatives to daylighting the creek.
One question is whether it will be more economical to stick with the status quo of repeatedly repairing the city’s aging stormwater pipes.
Fish Creek group members say the project will pay off in the long run.
“Managing stormwater above the surface is a lot cheaper than burying it and always digging up pipes every 25 years,” Smith said on the bike ride.
How the restoration would be paid for is unknown. The giant federal infrastructure bill could be a source of money, Button said.
“It’s not a small project,” she said, “but it’s the right project.”
[Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to the American Rescue Plan Act as the American Recovery Plan Act.]
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