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Set the underground rivers free

Once upon a time, cities buried waterways to reduce flooding and make room for cars. Now climate change and other factors are reversing that logic.

The Muddy River as it emerges beneath Perkins Street from its source in Jamaica Pond.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

I’m pushing past briars and squelching across half-frozen mud on the south shore of Boston’s Turtle Pond, following a trickle of water that flows from the pond into the adjacent woodlands. The name of this quiet waterway is Stony Brook. Yes, that Stony Brook — the one for which the MBTA Orange Line Station in Jamaica Plain is named. The brook takes me through the sun-splashed forest of Stony Brook Reservation until suddenly, it vanishes. Only a 10-minute walk from Turtle Pond, Stony Brook flows into the black maw of a culvert next to some homes. I clamber up to the road, wondering if the brook will emerge on the other side. But there are only houses.

This is what I clomped out here to find on a frigid Sunday — the exact spot where Stony Brook disappears and becomes a subterranean waterway that snakes beneath Boston for roughly 8.5 miles before emptying into the Charles River near the Harvard Bridge. Just imagining this long-underground river flowing through conduits right under my feet gave me goosebumps. But now that I’ve seen a sliver of Stony Brook in daylight, I understand why urban planners and environmental scientists who study waterways like this have been asking: What if we dug them up?

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Exhuming waterways that run beneath developed areas and restoring their natural flow and width is known as “daylighting.” And in the Northeast, you don’t have to look far to find formerly lost rivers that have been brought back into the light. From Providence to New York to Boston’s Emerald Necklace, these forgotten waters are being surfaced to rejuvenate parks, revive local economies, and create bigger reservoirs that can prevent flooding during increasingly dangerous storms.

“Pretty much the worst thing you can do for a stream is to put it in a pipe,” says Julie Wood, the deputy director of the Charles River Watershed Association, a nonprofit whose mission includes restoration projects along the Charles and its tributaries.

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Stony Brook rushes through the Stony Brook Reservation before being swallowed by the conduit that takes it underground.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

But for more than a century, putting streams in pipes or covering them with roads was a standard thing for cities to do. To create more paved ground for their expanding urban infrastructure, cities routed inconvenient waterways into culverts and conduits, overlaying the pipes with concrete.

Sometimes these stream coverings mitigated environmental damage to the cities. Stony Brook was buried in the late 19th century after spring floods repeatedly swamped homes in Roxbury. Covering rivers also prevented residents from using them for informal trash and sewage dumping — a fate that once befell Boston’s Muddy River, which flows from Jamaica Pond through the Emerald Necklace parks system to the Charles River.

Rather than burying the Muddy River, the City of Boston decided to keep most of it daylit. The landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted was commissioned to transform the river from a clogged channel into a winding river with its own system of ponds. This improved the flow and water quality of the Muddy River, and it gave the trees and shrubs that Olmsted planted alongside the stream a chance to flourish.

“When you daylight [a river], you essentially bring it back to life,” says Wood. “It’s going to get sunlight; there’s going to be more oxygen in the river for fish to breathe. Animals, plants, and the local ecosystem can have some hope of living and thriving there.”

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Stony Brook goes under the Enneking Parkway in Boston.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

It’s not just flora and fauna that can thrive when waterways are uncovered. During the 1990s, Providence daylit the Moshassuck and Woonasquatucket Rivers by removing highway and railroad infrastructure that had covered them for decades. This sparked the construction of Waterplace Park, a lagoon and a cobblestone riverwalk that became the hosting ground for the WaterFire festival led by the artist Barnaby Evans. Since its first river lighting in 1994, WaterFire has brought millions of visitors — and their wallets — to the city’s formerly depressed downtown. In 1997, the architect Friedrich St. Florian, who designed the Providence Place mall, called WaterFire “the crown jewel of the Providence renaissance.”

Daylighting success stories like Providence’s demonstrate why cities such as Detroit, Berkeley, Calif., and Yonkers, N.Y., have daylit lost rivers of their own. In the next few years, New York City will spend more than $130 million to excavate Tibbetts Brook, long buried beneath the Bronx.

These projects have a distinct 21st-century utility to them. As record-breaking hurricanes and storm surges become a regular part of life for residents of cities like New York, the need for resilience in the face of climate change strengthens the case for daylighting underground streams and rivers.

The storms that once prompted American cities to bury waterways like Tibbetts Brook and Stony Brook are getting bigger and deadlier as they move across warming oceans. All of that excess water will need somewhere else to go, as Bostonians have learned the hard way. Last September, vehicles on Storrow Drive were immobilized by rising floodwaters after the remnants of Hurricane Ida swept through the city.

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Something similar happened in New York. When the conduit network containing Tibbetts Brook was flooded with stormwater, the discharged brook waters submerged nearby roads like the Major Deegan Expressway. Daylighting Tibbetts Brook is intended to stop this from recurring by adding more capacity to the waterway.

Two daylighting projects in Boston could help us better withstand the floods of the future.

The Major Deegan Expressway in New York City flooded last September after Hurricane Ida.GREGG VIGLIOTTI/NYT

Since 2013, the US Army Corps of Engineers has been expanding the boundaries of the Muddy River. It’s basically an overdue upgrade of Olmsted’s effort to keep the river daylit. In the wake of Olmsted’s initial success, pieces of the Muddy River were covered up by bigger roads — including Storrow Drive, which runs above the spot where the Muddy River meets the Charles. Farther inland, silt and sediment runoff from adjacent roadways has accumulated in the river, restricting its capacity. The first phase of the Muddy River Restoration Project involved daylighting the bend of the river that flows past the Landmark Center, and the ongoing second phase is dredging all that built-up sediment from the Riverway and the Fens.

Waterfowl paddle in the Muddy River where it bends at the Landmark Center.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Then there’s the Charlesgate. Here, at the crossroads of the Back Bay, the Fenway, and Kenmore Square, the Muddy River and its banks are overshadowed by the Bowker Overpass. As you walk toward the Charles, the Muddy River disappears into a 270-foot-long culvert that runs beneath Storrow Drive. A pretzel twist of ramps connecting the roadway to the overpass prevents pedestrians from reaching the Esplanade. But over the next few years, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation will rebuild the Storrow eastbound bridge and bring the riverside westbound lane farther inland, making the buried concluding section of the Muddy River ready for daylighting — an opportunity that the Emerald Necklace Conservancy and the Charlesgate Alliance have seized upon.

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The Muddy River at Charlesgate outside Kenmore Square, just before the river dips under Storrow Drive and empties into the Charles.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Working closely with the Department of Transportation, both organizations are planning to revitalize the Charlesgate area by digging up the final stretch of the Muddy River. This will ease local flooding by getting rid of the current choke point where the Muddy River is forced into the long, narrow passage that runs beneath Storrow and the adjacent land. But daylighting the river will also allow nearby multiuse paths to link up with the Esplanade’s trails. “It’s connecting these systems that are not just local but regional. It’s the way that you can get from Watertown to Quincy by bike or on foot,” says Karen Mauney-Brodek, president of the Emerald Necklace Conservancy. “This is a critical link that was broken. We can reknit it both from a cyclist and pedestrian standpoint and also a river standpoint.”

Mauney-Brodek is quick to note that unlike many big projects that involve breaking ground in densely populated cities, the Charlesgate daylighting has pretty much been championed by all relevant parties — neighborhood residents, businesses, lawmakers, and state institutions. “This project doesn’t have a bad guy,” Mauney-Brodek jokes. Integral to this broad support, however, is the fact that daylighting the Muddy River at Charlesgate will not cause significant disruptions for people living and working in the area. The trickiest step of the project — consolidating Storrow’s eastbound and westbound lanes — was going to happen anyway.

Daylighting other waterways in the area would be a tougher sell for Boston residents. Students at Northeastern have created designs for uncovering Stony Brook where it runs through the university campus, but exhuming the entire waterway seems unlikely: It would require digging through residential yards or roads in several neighborhoods. A project like this would also take up real estate in a city that urgently needs more housing. These are realities that can derail a daylighting initiative — long before stakeholders start asking how much the project is going to cost and who will pay for it.

All the more reason to marvel at the serendipity of the Muddy River daylighting at Charlesgate, which accounts for a only small portion of the $80 million cost of the Department of Transportation project in the area, according to the Emerald Necklace Conservancy.

It’s one thing to size up the site on a map. But when you actually go there — as I did, immediately after my Stony Brook bushwhack — picturing the daylit river and its revitalized banks is hardly a stretch. I follow the Muddy beneath multiple off-ramps from Storrow Drive, as the rumble of cars overhead drowns out the rippling of the icy water. When I arrive at the culvert opening where the river disappears, I keep walking until I’m standing atop a garbage-strewn plot of grass beside the whoosh of Storrow. I can see the riverside benches, the dog park, and the trees that will be installed here as the daylighting project moves forward. I can hear the roar of floodwaters emptying into the Charles, freed from the constriction of the extended culvert. Perhaps the same treatment could be applied to dozens of lost waterways across the Commonwealth, such as Fall River’s Quequechan River or Miller’s River of Cambridge, which wasn’t just buried but partially packed with landfill.

I have to imagine these things, because for now the portion of the Muddy River that I’m near is still out of sight.

But it’s no longer out of mind.

Miles Howard is a journalist in Boston. Follow him on Twitter @milesperhoward.