Across the country, buried beneath the pavement you walk on, an invisible network of waterways flows through the darkness. These are ghost streams, and they’re haunting us.
In their former lives, they wound through natural landscapes above ground; it’s only through decades of development that humanity has relegated them beneath the earth’s surface, enclosing the waterways in tombs of concrete and iron. The effects, decades later, plague us. Without a natural habitat to snake through, these streams carry downstream an excessive amount of pollutants (like salt and sediment) and nutrients (like nitrogen and phosphorus) because they can’t divest these materials into their surrounding environs.
Here’s how ghost streams happen: Civilization grows near water sources, clustering around lakes, rivers, and springs that provide the resources required for drinking, bathing, and irrigating. As we industrialized drinking water infrastructure and outsourced water sources to larger, distant reservoirs and aquifers, most towns stopped using the smaller springs that originally drew them to a place. With that shift, many of the original freshwater sources go unused. Without relying on them for drinking water or irrigation, they become nothing but nuisances to development. If you want to build on a piece of land, the stream that threads through it has got to go. But streams are formidable obstacles; you can’t just demolish them and move on. Water needs to flow, so when we construct on land traversed by a stream, we bury it.
Photo: Hendrik Cornelissen/Unsplash
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