An Anchorage group wants the city to take a closer look at reviving a creek that once ran through the city by “lighting up” the waterway.
During decades of development in Midtown Anchorage, Fish Creek was partially routed in underground drainpipes. Now a group called Friends of Fish Creek is pleading for the upstream section to sink to the surface again.
Everyone seems to recognize that bringing the creek into the open won’t be easy. But the defenders say such a move will turn the creek into a valuable community asset, flowing through the heart of the city and all the way to Spenard.
“We’ve never tackled something like this in our city before, and what’s really cool is how we can co-exist with our natural landscape,” said Karen Button, president of the group. “And Anchorage is still young enough that we have that opportunity.”
Friends of Fish Creek members say it can be rehabilitated in sections, to control costs.
Anchorage voters last month approved a $320,000 bond to pay for a study on the daylighting idea.
But Anchorage bond attorneys have advised city officials that a study cannot be paid for with a bond, which typically funds capital assets, said Lance Wilber, the city’s director of public works.
However, Anchorage Assemblyman Austin Quinn-Davidson, who led efforts to get the article on the ballot, said she plans to seek other sources of funding.
Restoration efforts go from ‘crazy to cool’
The study, if it is funded and started, will help determine how and if the project should be continued.
About five years ago when the Fish Creek group formed, people thought the creek’s natural lighting seemed crazy, Button said.
But restoration efforts across the country — including the ongoing recovery of the Eklutna River northeast of Anchorage — have changed views, she said.
People are increasingly interested in “green infrastructure” projects like this – using natural features to manage water and build resilience to climate change, she said.
“It went from crazy to cool, and that 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 is possible, she said.
Maybe Anchorage can create something like the River Walk in San Antonio, Texas, she said. The San Antonio River Flood Control Project is an open-air tourist attraction beneath city streets, lined with trees and shops.
“It would take real vision and money, but it doesn’t have to be all happening at once,” Quinn-Davidson said.
Perhaps sections can be clarified as developers take on projects, she said.
“It could be a nice asset for development,” she said.
Quinn-Davidson said she would push for other sources of funding for the study. After all, voters approved the measure. The money could possibly come from the American Recovery Plan Act, she said.
The Fish Creek that remains today is often small and sometimes dirty. Its lower section runs through much of Spenard and Turnagain, sometimes accompanied by a cycle path.
The creek begins at a source far to the east in a wooded area near doctors’ 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, bits of the historic creek remain. These are often dry ditches littered with trash, unless it rains or the snow melts.
On a recent bike tour of the historic creek route, some of the original banks had muddy brown water.
“We built over it, but the creek keeps trying to flow,” said Jed Smith, a Friends of Fish Creek board member who led the tour.
At times, remnants of the creek lurked behind homes and businesses, cutting off access. It smelled of sewage in a few places.
In the early 1950s, the creek was thin and slowly flowing through what would become Midtown. It loses its shape in swampy areas, but becomes clearer in Spenard. It was fed by wetlands, unlike other Anchorage creeks that start in the mountains, Button said.
As Anchorage exploded, water sources were paved over and dried up, she said.
Builders scraped off the spongy peat and replaced it with gravel to erect buildings and parking lots.
A major spring called Blueberry Lake was covered in gravel and asphalt, she said. The lake has disappeared from today’s maps, replaced by Walmart and other businesses.
To prevent flooding, city planners redirected much of the creek to underground pipes, she said.
The ponds at Cuddy Family Midtown Park are part of the historic Fish Creek route. They were created more than ten years ago, from wetlands near the Loussac Library, to help control flooding.
The stream there is temporarily lit by day, before the waters disappear underground again.
A concept drawing by the group envisions the daylight-lit creek leaving Cuddy Family Midtown Park and passing Centerpoint Business Park, with its tall buildings occupied by Hilcorp and other businesses.
The creek would cross under the main streets and, after more than a mile, reconnect with the lower creek near the Minnesota-Tudor intersection.
The group says that ideally the project could support more bike paths and salmon habitat. And the creek could still discharge stormwater into Cook Inlet, with sediment being removed in biofiltration areas such as grassy swales near the creek.
The project would also involve complex engineering issues, as well as costly steps such as land acquisition and the removal of asphalt and other structures.
A 2019 preliminary review by HDR Engineering looked at the idea.
He said daylighting Cuddy Park Creek at the Minnesota-Tudor intersection could cost $56 million and is “hypothetically doable.” Rehabilitating a smaller section, in eastern Spenard, would cost $16 million, according to the review.
A thorough study would provide more cost certainty, said Bill Spencer, a civil and environmental engineer with HDR who worked on the 2019 report. That could lead to higher cost estimates.
“I wish someone had thought of it in the ’60s, but we didn’t think that way in the ’60s,” Spencer said. “Once you urbanize an area, it’s really hard to change that.”
Cost and elevation among the challenges
Cook Inlet Housing Authority anticipates the possibility of the creek being lit by daylight one day, said Tyler Robinson, the authority’s vice president.
The builder is working on a housing development near Spenard Road and 36th Avenue that will leave additional space along a nearby, often dry, channel of the creek, he said.
The extra room will also support a creekside pathway and features such as rain gardens to manage rainwater, so the area will look attractive even if the creek is not lit by daylight, a said Robinson.
He said the rehabilitation of the creek faces big obstacles. Providing enough setback from the creek in other areas may not be easy, he said. Land will have to be acquired, possibly from reluctant owners.
“There are engineering challenges and land acquisition challenges,” he said.
Spencer, with HDR, said 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 deep digging in some areas, he said. This could lead to complications.
“If you take a stream and drop it 6, 8 feet below the existing road, you come across fiber optic cables, phone lines, existing storm sewers,” he said. “There is an enormous amount of work to be done.”
A study will take a closer look at these and other challenges, such as whether the expected increase in land values near the rehabilitated creek will be enough, Spencer said.
“And the quality of life and leisure opportunities, what’s that worth?” he said. “There’s a whole bunch of analysis that the city and its residents need to look at.”
The study will consider alternatives to natural creek lighting.
One question is whether it will be more economical to stick with the status quo of repeatedly fixing the city’s aging storm drains.
Members of the Fish Creek group say the project will be profitable in the long term.
“Managing stormwater above the surface is much cheaper than burying it and still digging pipes every 25 years,” Smith said during the bike ride.
How the catering would be paid for is unknown. The giant federal infrastructure bill could be a money maker, Button said.
“It’s not a small project,” she said, “but it’s the right project.”
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