Your browser does not support modern web standards implemented on our site
Therefore the page you accessed might not appear as it should.
See for more information.

Whatcom Watch Bird Logo

Past Issues

Whatcom Watch Online
Daylighting Padden Creek: Breathing Life into an Urban Stream

September 2015

Cover Story

Daylighting Padden Creek: Breathing Life into an Urban Stream

by Wendy Scherrer

Wendy Scherrer has lived in Happy Valley for the past 40 years and has worked on the restoration of Padden Creek and its fish runs since 1985. Scherrer has a B.S. in Environmental Planning and M.Ed in Science Education, is part of the Padden Creek Alliance, on the board of the Happy Valley Neighborhood Association, and is retired executive director of the Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association.

In the May 2001 issue of Whatcom Watch, 14 years ago, I submitted an article, titled “After 100 Years, Padden Creek May Again See Daylight.” Now that construction work is well advanced on daylighting Padden Creek, after all these years, I thought a retelling of the history behind this project might be enlightening.

Padden Creek History

Padden Creek is approximately 2.9 miles long. The Padden Creek watershed drains about 3,830 acres in the south end of Bellingham and includes the sub-basins of Lake Padden and Connelly Creek. The upper watershed consists of several unnamed tributaries that flow through forested parks and a residential area, into Lake Padden. The remaining portion of the watershed is drained by Padden Creek, as it meanders from Lake Padden to Bellingham Bay. Storm water from I-5, Sehome Village, Joe’s Garden, Western Washington University, Samish, South, Happy Valley and Fairhaven neighborhoods drain to the creek.

Sis’lit-chum or Suslichm is the Nooksack place name for the lower part of Padden Creek. The Lummi people fished the mouth with harpoons and gaffs at low tide for dog (chum) salmon. (from “Nooksack Place Names” Allan Richardson and Brent Douglas Galloway, Vancouver: UBC Press, 2011)

In 1891, the city council appropriated $20 for investigation and development of a tunnel and ordered 310,000 bricks for the work. In 1892, an open section of Padden Creek was abandoned, after the egg-shaped 6 ft. x 4 ft. brick tunnel was constructed. Padden Creek was routed into the tunnel to prepare the valley for the anticipated construction of the Great Northern Railroad, which was proposed to end in Fairhaven. This project facilitated the draining of the wetlands, carrying both surface drainage and sewage from the surrounding land and homes and was probably one of the earliest public storm water/sewer projects in what is now Bellingham. The original Padden Creek tunnel price tag: $27,102.05.

The tunnel was almost one-half mile long (2,310 feet) and carried the buried stream from 22nd Street at Old Fairhaven Parkway, to where it dumps out in Fairhaven Park near 17th Street. Padden Creek is typical of most Western Washington streams flowing through urban areas in the past 120 years — Padden Creek has been significantly altered to accommodate land uses associated with the growing neighborhoods without accommodating fish and floods. Rainbow trout, cutthroat trout, steelhead, Coho, chum, and fall Chinook salmon have been seen migrating, spawning and rearing downstream of the tunnel in this perennial stream. In addition, multiple species of birds and other urban wildlife use the riparian corridor for habitat. But the migrating salmonids can’t make it through the tunnel to upstream habitat.

Padden Creek Alliance

The Padden Creek Alliance is a collaborative group, including citizens, fishers, business partners, city of Bellingham (COB) staff, the Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association, Happy Valley and Fairhaven Neighborhood Association members and Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife biologists. It had been meeting since 1997 to figure out how to “daylight” Padden Creek, to remove Padden Creek from the existing tunnel and restore it to a more natural stream channel.

The Padden Creek Alliance approached then Mayor Mark Asmundson and the Bellingham City Council, which passed a resolution in October 1998, to support the Padden Creek Alliance’s efforts and

“to encourage the county, federal and state governments to provide future assistance needed for this worthwhile project and fund a feasibility study to perform planning-level designs for natural channel alternatives to the Padden Creek tunnel.”

Feasibility Studies

Alternative stream routes were analyzed to address issues of flood control, fish habitat, fish passage, permits and funding sources for the Padden Creek daylighting project. In 2001, the first feasibility study was commissioned by the city of Bellingham and completed for approximately $50,000 by Seattle consulting firm R. W. Beck, Inc. This study explored the following alternatives:

1. Construction of a new stream channel to be aligned on the north side of Fairhaven Parkway.

2. Construction of a channel aligned on the south side of Fairhaven Parkway.

3. Use of the existing tunnel for a high flow diversion channel in conjunction with a modified north or south alignment.

The chosen alignment on the north side of Old Fairhaven Parkway was then analyzed and a preliminary project plan was developed.

In 2002, a second feasibility study, valued at $65,000, was donated by Jones Engineering, a Bellingham firm, to the Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association and the Padden Creek Alliance. That study showed it was possible to retain the tunnel. The two studies were married together to come up with the final plan, a design that can deal with flows above the 100-year storm level.

Getting it Done

Stream daylighting is a relatively new approach that brings buried waterways back to life. Numerous problem-solving meetings and collaborations need to happen before dreams and ideas can turn into schematic and final designs, then to permitting and construction. The property owners affected by the project needed to be engaged and multiple sources of funding need to be acquired to fund such an historic, complex project. From 1997–2015, city of Bellingham staff worked with Padden Creek Alliance members to gather funding and political support for the project. In the end funding and support was provided by federal, state and local sources.

Around 2008, then State Senator Harriet Spanel, had $1million dedicated to this project through the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) for construction of the accompanying Padden Creek Bridge on Old Fairhaven Parkway (SR11). From 2000-2015, seven properties were acquired and/or easements purchased by city of Bellingham along the route of the stream, with $240,000 coming from Greenways and $690,000 coming from the COB storm and surface water utility. In 2011, the COB acquired a Washington State Deptartment of Ecology (DOE) revolving loan of $1,426,000 and a Centennial Grant of $500,000 after several unsuccessful attempts. This, in combination with COB storm and surface water utility funds, an additional $1.8 million (inclusive of property costs) have made this project possible. The total funding dedicated to this project is approximately $4 million.

Construction Activities

From 2013-2014, the WSDOT bridge was built providing a channel for the creek under Old Fairhaven Parkway (SR11). Ram Construction, a Bellingham firm, got the contract for $1,668,097.90, to remove the existing culvert, excavate a new channel, install a bridge and a precast concrete girder bridge to accommodate the flow of water in the new creek channel.

In 2015, Strider Construction got the contract to do the final construction, for $2,859,478.51, which began in June 2015. This summer, the new channel has been cleared, excavated, and habitat structures such as large woody debris (logs and rootwads) have been placed in their approximate locations between 20th and 22nd streets. Earth anchors will be used to hold these in place and prevent them from floating and drifting downstream during high water. The logs will then be connected to these anchors with stainless steel cables. Water main work was completed on 20th and 22nd streets to make way for the new stream channel. Instream work will be complete by October 1, 2015, when a functional creek must be in place to meet regulatory in-water work window. Restoration and pedestrian bridge work at the Interurban Trail parking lot being done following work on the creek channel. Tree plantings will occur throughout the fall of 2015 and winter of 2016 to ensure revegetation of the area.

Maintenance and Monitoring

After construction, two city-sponsored Washington Conservation Corps (WCC) crews will remove remaining invasive species and plant appropriate native vegetation. They will plant the site this fall and winter. After planting they generally visit each site six times a year during the first few years to do basic maintenance such as weed suppression. The crews will maintain the site for as long as needed. Scientific monitoring will be coordinated by COB Public Works staff and will include:

• Ambient water quality for two years

• Native plant establishment and success

• Fish presence and usage

Benefits of Daylighting

• Alleviate the flood hazard for approximately 80 residences, reducing flooding for over 15 city blocks in the neighborhood and resulting in savings on flood insurance for property owners

• Improve water quality

• Remove barriers to fish migration, restored fish habitat

• New wildlife corridor

A newly restored Padden Creek will provide children and adults years of opportunity to use the tools of science, art, photography, music, math, reading and writing to gain understanding how nature works in our own backyard. With the newly daylighted Padden Creek, we will learn how people can work with nature to heal a degraded stream ecosystem, solve problems of flooding and invite salmon to our little neighborhood stream.

And stay tuned — a community celebration will be held once the project is complete, hopefully in Spring 2016.

If you have questions about details of the project, see or contact:

Craig Mueller, Project Engineer, Public Works, (360) 778-7922 or

Burying Padden Creek

Weekly World, October 2, 1891

“...the work between Seventeenth and Twenty-first streets should be begun at once, and awarded in time contracts. A tunnel through which the tunnel would pass should be made, and the council appropriated $20 for the expenses of such investigation. It was ordered that 310,000 bricks would be sufficient for the work.”

Weekly World, April 29, 1892

“The sewer tunnel is now driven in about 300 feet. The work is all in solid rock, and is being driven night and day by three shifts of workmen. The blasting is all done at night.”

Weekly World, June 24, 1892

“A communication from J. J. Donovan protesting against having the line of the sewer tunnel done by contract was read. The protest stated that it was almost impossible to get honest work done by contract in a dark tunnel.”

Weekly World, November 25, 1892

“Unusually heavy rainfall Friday did considerable damage, especially in Happy Valley and along Padden Creek. The rush of water...was so great that the creek overflowed its banks and spread out over a large area.”

Reveille, November 17, 1902

“Engineers. verbal report showed sections No. 4 and No. 5 were ready, and Happy Valley would soon be thoroughly drained.”

Back to Top of Story