Phalen Creek may soon see some daylight

courtesy of Inter-Fluve • A technical study conducted by Inter-Fluve on behalf of the Lower Phalen Creek Project looked at two areas where Phalen Creek could be brought back above ground, or “daylighted.” The areas, which on themap are identifed as “Reach 7” and “Reach 5,” were determined based on geology, topography, soil quality and land usage, among other factors.

courtesy of Inter-Fluve • Phalen Creek was completely underground by the 1930s and now flows in two locations — in the Beltline Storm Sewer, seen in orange, and the Phalen Creek Sewer, seen in red on this storm sewer map.

Marjorie Otto/Review • A similar “daylighting” project was completed in 2014 at Trout Brook Nature Sanctuary in the North End neighborhood of St. Paul. Inter-Fluve, the same engineering firm conducting initial studies for Phalen Creek, engineered and managed the construction on Trout Brook, seen above. The Phalen Creek project could look similar when finished.

courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society • This photo from July of 1936 shows a section of Phalen Creek being enclosed in sewer, between Third and East Sixth streets.

courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society • Phalen Creek at an unspecified date as it flowed through Swede Hollow.

When the Lower Phalen Creek Project was established in 1997, it was created in order to plan a project to “daylight” Phalen Creek.

Now, 20 years later, the project to bring the waterway back above ground is finally seeing some major movement.

Melanie Kleiss, executive director of Lower Phalen Creek Project, said the organization recently received the results of a technical study conducted by Inter-Fluve that looked into where Phalen Creek could be brought to the surface, and how.

The project is following a trend across the country of bringing buried water sources back into urban areas to reconnect people with natural resources.


Unearthing the flow

“Daylighting” is the term used when a water source that runs underground is brought up to the surface.  

Inter-Fluve, the engineering firm conducting the initial technical study for Phalen Creek, has successfully completed a number of projects like this across the U.S. It was the same engineering firm that planned and managed the daylighting of Trout Brook in the Trout Brook Nature Sanctuary in the North End neighborhood of St. Paul, which wrapped up in 2014.

Currently, Phalen Creek runs underground in two separate concrete sewer lines to the Mississippi River.

In a series of articles from the nonprofit Historic St. Paul, local historian Steve Trimble explains that Phalen Creek originally ran above ground from Lake Phalen down to the Mississippi River, emptying into a marshy area where the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary is now located. 

Trout Brook and Phalen Creek have always been closely related — in their natural states years ago, both ended in that same marshland.

Trimble explains that over the years, both waterways were altered to either make way for trains or development. Phalen Creek was put underground into a storm sewer in phases, and by the 1930s none of it saw daylight.

How to do it

The daylighting project is still in the very early planning stages, Kleiss said.

The Lower Phalen Creek Project worked with Inter-Fluve this year to conduct the technical feasibility study to identify sections of the creek to daylight, she said. The technical study looked at geology, topography, land use, water table elevations and storm sewers in relation to the creek to ease the cost of bringing it out into the open.

Many of the fine details, such as costs, have not yet been ironed out, as they depend on the results of an overall feasibility study, which won’t be completed until the fall of 2018. The study is being paid for by the Capitol Region Watershed District and the Ramsey Washington Metro Watershed District.

The overall study will include community feedback, which Lower Phalen Creek Project is currently collecting with help from Friends of Swede Hollow and the district councils for Dayton’s Bluff and Payne-Phalen.

Kleiss said the project won’t bring the entire creek to the surface. Right now, two areas have been identified as being viable — an area just south of Lake Phalen between Wheelock Parkway and Magnolia Lane and an area along Phalen Boulevard, from the Earl Street underpass to the top of Swede Hollow Park.

According to the study, the areas were chosen because of a number of factors and because they’d be the least costly in terms of the volume of soil needed to be removed. These sections are also either park land or a part of the railroad right-of-way, avoiding the disruption and complications of doing the work on private land. Kleiss explained that homes and businesses are now located in what had been the original path for the creek.

She added the creek won’t be daylighted in Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary right away because of soil contamination and the depth needed for the creek to flow.

Part of the project may involve some work on the creek in Swede Hollow Park, but it was not included in the initial technical study, as the creek is already daylighted in the park. Work in the park would include creating a constant flow in the creek, which currently sees little to no flow for much of the year.

The daylighted parts of the creek will be engineered to maintain a constant flow, but will still be connected to the storm sewer system to prevent flooding during storms, Kleiss said.


A healthy community

As the initial technical study states, “The ultimate goal would be to daylight segments of the creek to restore ecological function, provide recreational and educational opportunities, and improve watershed health.”

Kleiss said her organization has seen a number of studies that find a connection between improved mental health and access to open water and uses those studies as reasoning for a project like this.

Inter-Fluve engineer Jonathon Kusa, who has been conducting the technical study, said Inter-Fluve also refers to similar studies as reasoning for its work.

Kleiss said the project is also about bringing equitable access to natural resources.

“There are neighborhoods [that] don’t have quick access to natural resources,” Kleiss said, adding that a project like this will be “bringing more access to more people.”

Kusa and Kleiss both mentioned the educational aspect as being one of the most important reasons for doing the project. They said that when people can actually see where the water is going — from the street into the creek — it shows them the impact their actions have on water quality.

“The connectivity between people and the environment has been lost in many areas over the years,” Kusa said, adding that when people are reconnected with natural resources, they “understand their impact on these resources.”

He said when people here understand their impact, it helps “those downstream to have better water quality.”

Kusa said another impact often forgotten is the economic impact — having an ecological amentity encourages visitors from outside the neighborhood to come visit and such amenities can encourage people to buy homes in the area, an effect Kusa’s team studied with a daylighting project in Massachusetts.

There is also an ecological impact — creeks and streams, with plant life along their banks, are natural water filtrations, which helps to keep the water that flows into the Mississippi River cleaner in a more natural way, which Phalen Creek doesn’t do in the sewers it currently runs in.

As the Lower Phalen Creek Project continues to study and plan for the project, it is also looking to connect with other local organizations that would like to get involved with it, whether for educational or ecological partnerships.

“It can take any form,” Kleiss said, adding that the Lower Phalen Creek Project wants the neighborhood to take ownership of the project.

To give your feedback on the daylighting project, go to For those who would prefer to fill out a paper copy of the survey, the Lower Phalen Creek Project can be reached at 612-581-8636.

For those interested in partnering with the Lower Phalen Creek Project, email Melanie Kleiss at


Marjorie Otto can be reached at 651-748-7816 or at Follow her on Twitter at @EastSideM_Otto.

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