For more than 120 years, a nearly half-mile section of Padden Creek between 22nd and 17th streets has been forced through a tunnel away and hidden from the sun.
It’s believed that part of the creek, located off what is now Old Fairhaven Parkway, was routed through the tunnel in 1892 to help drain wetlands in part of Happy Valley so a train station could be built for Great Northern Railroad.
That’s where the creek has been since.
Now, the city of Bellingham will remove 2,300 feet of the creek from the 8-foot-tall and 4-foot-wide tunnel and return it to a more natural state in a $2.8 million “daylighting” project.
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“It’s something that you don’t have happen every year — creating a new stream out of a stream that has been in a tunnel for 120 years,” said Craig Mueller, project engineer for the city. “It’s quite an amazing opportunity.”
Putting the creek into a new channel will allow for fish passage, improve habitat, and reduce flooding, according to the city.
The tunnel has been a barrier for migratory fish in Padden Creek , which has had coho and chum salmon, steelhead and cutthroat trout, and the occasional chinook. Rachel Vasak, executive director of the Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association, praised the city for taking the lead.
“NSEA is excited that this project is happening,” she said, adding that the project will enable salmon to reach the majority of Padden Creek and use the habitat there.
Strider Construction is expected to start the work after Memorial Day and be done by Oct. 1, with a couple of weeks after for cleanup.
People can learn more about the project, which has been some three decades in the making, at a city of Bellingham open house the night of Tuesday, May 5.
“This is the accumulation of 30 years of work between the city and the neighborhood residents and other stakeholders,” Mueller said.
Terry Bornemann remembered going to his first meeting about the project 25 to 30 years ago, before he was on the Bellingham City Council.
“It seemed such a dream at that time that we could actually do that. It’s been a long time coming,” said Bornemann, adding that he looked forward to fish being able to make it through that first link once the tunnel is removed.
Padden Creek is 2 1/2 miles long and flows from Lake Padden to Bellingham Bay, going through Fairhaven, Happy Valley and Samish neighborhoods along the way. The tunnel prevents salmon from swimming upstream and has “drastically reduced the fish population in Padden Creek,” according to NSEA’s overview of the Padden Creek watershed on its website.
The daylighting project will reroute the part of the creek that flows through the brick tunnel into a new channel that will run roughly parallel to the tunnel and underneath the bridge near 20th Street that was built by the state Department of Transportation. The project will include the creation of a riparian corridor, which is habitat near a river or stream.
Some trees will be removed and incorporated into the new creek channel as habitat features, such as logs. New plants will be put in after construction as part of the restoration.
“There will be chances for the public to get their hands dirty and to help with the restoration planting,” Mueller said.
The tunnel, which is still in good shape, will be left in place to serve as a vault to hold stormwater. It also will provide emergency capacity for extreme flooding, Mueller said.
Both ends of the tunnel will be changed to prevent fish from entering.
It’s hoped that fish soon will move through the new creekbed.
“We know after two or three generations, they’re going to do what fish do,” said Renee LaCroix, the city’s ecology and restoration manager. “They have a natural tendency to stray into new habitats.”
Money for the project comes from local stormwater funds, and a loan and grant from the state Department of Ecology.
The project will mean disruptions for trail users and motorists because:
• Construction crews will set up in the parking lot for the Interurban Trail Rotary Trailhead, off Old Fairhaven Parkway near 20th Street. That parking lot will be closed during the project.
“It’s very well-used,” Mueller said. “This will definitely be an inconvenience, but it’s the only viable access to that stretch of stream on that side of Old Fairhaven Parkway.”
• About 150 feet of the Interurban Trail will be moved about 10 feet over from a section of the new channel. A pedestrian detour will be in place, likely in the 16th Street/Cowgill Avenue area up to the sidewalk on the parkway over to 20th Street.
• A block of 22nd Street just north of Old Fairhaven Parkway will be closed to through traffic for one to two months so a culvert bridge can be put in place. People who live in the area will use 24th Street for access.
The work also will include building a new pedestrian footbridge to replace the crossing near the parking lot for the Interurban Trail.
When it’s done, the project also is expected to help relieve flooding that occurs at the tunnel’s entrance at 22nd Street. Forcing Padden Creek through the tunnel created a floodplain, the city said.
“It’s a sizable flood plain,” Mueller said, adding that 87 homes are now in the floodplain created by the tunnel. “This project should alleviate that.”
To Wendy Scherrer, a Happy Valley resident who has worked on the restoration of Padden Creek and its fish runs since 1985, the daylighting is a big project that took planning and coordination among local, state and federal partners. It also took persistence and patience, said Scherrer, who is on the board of Happy Valley Neighborhood Association and is part of the Padden Creek Alliance working to restore the creek.
After the project, restoration efforts will continue for the urban creek in the form of ongoing monitoring.
“It’s going to be kind of the starting block,” said Scherrer, who has written about the history of the effort to daylight the section of Padden Creek. “It’s our backyard, so we need to keep it front and center.”