Monday, February 26, 2018

Episode 409 (2-26-18): The Underground World of Buried "Ghost Streams"

CLICK HERE to listen to episode audio (4:26).

Transcript of audio, notes on the audio, images, and additional information follow below.

All Web addresses mentioned were functional as of 2-23-18.


From the Cumberland Gap to the Atlantic Ocean, this is Virginia Water Radio for the week of February 26, 2018.

MUSIC – ~9 sec

This week, that excerpt from “Rusty Piper” by the Blacksburg- and Roanoke-based band No Strings Attached opens an episode about an ecosystem hidden in pipes.  For that story, I'm joined by guest host Brynn O’Donnell.

This week we’re diving down to explore an ecosystem hidden beneath the ground, and learn about how our actions in towns can affect water bodies downstream.  Have a listen for about 10 seconds to this mystery sound, and see if you can guess what underground ecosystem you’re hearing.

SOUND - ~8 sec – Branch of Stoubles Creek under Draper Road in Blacksburg, Feb. 10, 2018

If you guessed a buried stream, you’re right!

Take note of your feet, and feel how the soles of your shoes press up against the floor—hard to imagine you've been walking on water, right?

In downtown Blacksburg, Va., that’s exactly what people are doing.  The stream you heard runs under buildings, sidewalks, and roadways, and most people don’t even realize it’s there.  In many cities and towns, an entire aquatic ecosystem flows similarly under the pavement—an invisible network of “ghost streams,” streams that once used to run above ground, but we’ve now buried in pipes so that we could construct buildings on top.  Humans have been burying streams since the Roman Empire, but we still don’t fully understand what happens when we do that.  How these streams have changed, and the impacts of those changes on downstream waterways, is the focus of my research at Virginia Tech.

Although we’ve buried these streams, we haven’t quite put them to rest.  Ghost streams are still beneath us, and still flowing, but they’re drastically changed from a more natural stream.  Such buried streams aren’t exposed to light or freely moving air, impacting organisms typically on the bottom of a stream or growing alongside of one.

If you recall the process of photosynthesis, plants need light, air, and nutrients to grow.  And although we don’t normally think of algae in streams as plants, they conduct photosynthesis, too, and they’re important components of natural streams, particularly in the use of nutrients.  Without light inside pipes, algae and streamside plants can’t survive.  With no life, buried streams can’t remove nutrients, so any nutrients that run off from cities into these streams are shuttled straight downstream.  This helps lead to nutrient buildups in downstream lakes, ponds, or other water bodies, in turn causing too much algae growth.  While algae perform important functions, other life is harmed by an algae over-abundance, such as when one sees a thick, green sludge on top of lakes or ponds.

With this possible sequence of events, sometimes it seems as if ghost streams are haunting us.  But moving forward through research and learning more about buried streams, we can understand how to mitigate their impact by promoting the retention of nutrients and the revitalization of life.

Thanks to No Strings Attached for permission to use this week’s music, and as a note to stream ecosystems buried beneath us in pipes, we close with a few more seconds of “Rusty Piper.”

MUSIC - ~14 sec


For more Virginia water sounds, music, and information, visit us online at, or call us at (540) 231-5463.  Virginia Water Radio is produced by the Virginia Water Resources Research Center, part of Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment.  Thanks to Stewart Scales for his banjo version of Cripple Creek to open and close the show.   In Blacksburg, I’m Alan Raflo, thanking you for listening, and wishing you health, wisdom, and good water.


This week’s script was based on Brynn O’Donnell’s November 4, 2017, presentation of her research in the Nutshell Games, conducted by Virginia Tech’s Center for Communicating Science.  A video of that presentation is available online at  As of February 2018, Brynn was a master’s student in the Virginia Tech Department of Biological Sciences.  For more information about Brynn’s work with buried streams, contact her at Virginia Water Radio thanks Brynn for developing and hosting this episode.

The sounds heard in this episode were of a branch of Stroubles Creek flowing under Draper Road in Blacksburg, Va., recorded on February 10, 2018; footsteps were heard in the audio because the stream at that point is under a staircase between the street and sidewalk.

Flying Cloud Reel/Rusty Piper,” by No Strings Attached, is from the 1999 album “In the Vinyl Tradition—Volume I,” from Enessay Music, used with permission.  More information about No Strings Attached is available online at and at  This music was part of Episode 315, 5-9-16, on sandpipers.

Click here if you’d like to hear the full version (1 min./11 sec.) of the “Cripple Creek” arrangement/performance by Stewart Scales that opens and closes this episode.  More information about Mr. Scales and the group New Standard, with which Mr. Scales plays, is available online at 


A branch of Stroubles Creek emerging from underground on the Virginia Tech campus in Blacksburg, Va.  Photo courtesy of Brynn O’Donnell.
A branch of Stroubles Creek under Draper Road in Blacksburg, Va., February 10, 2018 (site of the audio used in this episode of Virginia Water Radio).


Used for Audio
Virginia Tech Center for Communicating Science, online at

For More Information about Buried Streams
Jake J. Beaulieu et al., “Urban Stream Burial Increases Watershed-Scale Nitrate Export,” PLOS One, July 17, 2015, online at

Amy Trice/American Rivers, “Daylighting Streams: Breathing Life Into Urban Streams And Communities” (undated), online at


All Water Radio episodes are listed by category at the Index link above ( See particularly the “Science” subject category.

Other episodes on streams include the following:
stream assessment with aquatic macroinvertebrates – Episode 81, 9/26/11;
stream flow measurement – Episode 324, 7/11/16;
stream/river channel energy and patterns – Episode 248, 1/12/15;
streamside insect and spider sampling – Episode 336, 10/3/16;

Other episodes on research by college students in Virginia include the following:
antibiotic resistance – Episode 290, 11/16/15;
avian malaria – Episode 259, 3/30/15;
Emerald Ash Borer – Episode 376, 7/10/17;
headwater streams – Episode 397, 12/4/17;
oysters and nitrogen – Episode 280, 9/7/15;
soils and greenhouse gases – Episode 312, 4/18/16.


The episode may help with Virginia 2013 Music SOLs at various grade levels that call for “examining the relationship of music to the other fine arts and other fields of knowledge.”

This episode may also help with the following Virginia 2010 Science SOLs:

Grades K-6 Earth Resources Theme
4.9 - Va. natural resources, including watersheds, water resources, and organisms.
6.9 – public policy decisions related to the environment (including resource management and conservation, land use decision, hazard mitigation, cost/benefit assessments).

Grades K-6 Living Systems Theme
4.5 - ecosystem interactions and human influences on ecosystem.
6.7 - natural processes and human interactions that affect watershed systems; Va. watersheds, water bodies, and wetlands; health and safety issues; and water monitoring.

Life Science Course
LS.6 - ecosystem interactions, including the water cycle, other cycles, and energy flow.
LS.11 - relationships between ecosystem dynamics and human activity.

Earth Science Course
ES.6 – renewable vs. non-renewable resources (including energy resources).
ES.8 - influences by geologic processes and the activities of humans on freshwater resources, including identification of groundwater and major watershed systems in Virginia.

Biology Course
BIO.8 - dynamic equilibria and interactions within populations, communities, and ecosystems; including nutrient cycling, succession, effects of natural events and human activities, and analysis of the flora, fauna, and microorganisms of Virginia ecosystems.

The episode may also help with the following Virginia 2015 Social Studies SOLs:

Civics and Economics Course
CE.10 – public policy at local, state, and national levels.

World Geography Course
WG.2 - how selected physical and ecological processes shape the Earth’s surface, including climate, weather, and how humans influence their environment and are influenced by it.

Government Course
GOVT.9 – public policy process at local, state, and national levels.

Virginia’s SOLs are available from the Virginia Department of Education, online at

Following are links to previous Water Radio episodes (various topics) designed especially for certain K-12 grade levels.
Episode 250 (1-26-15) – on boiling, for kindergarten through 3rd grade;
Episode 255 (3-2-15) – on density, for 5th and 6th grade;
Episode 282 (9-21-15) – on living vs. non-living, for kindergarten;
Episode 309 (3-28-16) – on temperature regulation in animals, for kindergarten through 12th grade;
Episode 332 (9-12-16) – on dissolved gases, especially dissolved oxygen in aquatic habitats, for 5th grade;
Episode 403 (1-15-18) – on freezing and ice, for kindergarten through 3rd grade;
Episode 404 (1-22-18) – on ice on ponds and lakes, for 4th through 8th grade; Episode 406 (2-5-18) – on ice on rivers, for middle school;
Episode 407 (2-12-19)
– on snow chemistry and physics, for high school.