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Codornices Creek ready for makeover

By Jonathan Kiefer Special to the Daily Planet
Monday May 28, 2001

Last week, the State Water Resources Control Board awarded a $200,000 grant to the Urban Creeks Council to restore fish habitat in Codornices Creek — described by many as one of Berkeley’s most precious natural treasures. 

The creek is more than four miles long, and runs from the Berkeley hills through Codornices Park, the Rose Garden, Live Oak Park, and Harrison Park all the way to the San Francisco Bay. The lower part of Codornices Creek is Albany’s southern border. 

During the rapid development of the last century, many of Berkeley’s creeks were buried in culverts to provide space on which to build. Having survived with only five significant underground sections, Codornices Creek is considered the most free flowing of the city’s natural streams. It is also a delicate spawning and rearing habitat for endangered Steelhead. 

Disrupted streams have reduced the region’s Steelhead population so much in recent years that the National Marine Fisheries Services has listed the fish as an endangered species. Regulations have been developed to protect its “critical habitat,” which includes Alameda County. For more than 15 years, volunteers have worked to restore habitat in Codornices Creek, carefully tending the surrounding environment. Local fish scientists say the efforts have paid off. 

In March of last year, members of the citizens’ group Friends of Five Creeks, along with UC Berkeley biologist Tom Dudley, officially confirmed what many locals had already suspected — the presence of young Oncorhynchus mykiss, or Steelhead, in Codornices Creek. In the “fingerling stage” of youth, the fish is indistinguishable from a Rainbow Trout. Only if it goes to sea and returns will it become a Steelhead. 

The Proposition 13-funded grant, approved last Monday, will begin the “Codornices Creek Watershed Restoration Action Plan” as well as facilitating a comprehensive assessment of the creek’s Steelhead habitat to restore it to full health. Proposition 13, passed by voters in March 2000, authorized the state to sell $1.97 in general obligation bonds for water quality and reliability projects throughout California. The local grant will be used for a publicity campaign, preliminary engineering and cost estimates, water sample analysis and compensation for the many people involved with the project. Partners will include the Urban Creeks Council, local water quality restoration expert Bob Coats, Sausalito-based fish scientist Bill Kier, and researchers from UC Berkeley’s Department of Integrative Biology. 

Assemblywoman Dion Aroner, D-Berkeley, a creek restoration advocate, approved of last week’s announcement.  

“I’m pleased to see these funds flowing to such a vital project in our community,” Aroner said. “Congratulations to the Urban Creeks Council for the opportunity to continue their good work in restoring creeks to their natural beauty and providing urban environments where wildlife and humans can co-exist and flourish.” 

In that regard, the project represents an unusual test case and carries high hopes for its participants. 

“If these guys can pull this off, maybe we can get a model,” he said. “There’s a lot of wilderness models. We’re very short on how to do it in the urban settings.” 

Kier, who was born in Berkeley and has 40 years of fish barrier modification experience, recalled the creek’s history.  

“It has, in its day, literally been a sewer. When I was a kid and you used to drive by, you would instinctively roll up your windows,” he said. “A self-sustaining population of Steelhead? That excites me ... being right in the middle of a highly developed urban area.” 

Though pollution is no longer so severe, it remains one of many variables in the health of this sensitive ecosystem. An accessible migration path requires the shade overhanging vegetation provides, cooler water temperatures, deep pools, freedom from disturbance, and, of course, good quality water. Necessary intervention might include curtailing erosion, remediating extra water from heavy storms, reshaping portions of the creek bed to make it more maneuverable for the fish and “daylighting” the creek’s remaining underground sections — a task the city has endorsed. 

“Outreach is going to be a huge component of it,” Kier said. “Making sure people know all about the project all the time. We want them to be comfortable with what we’re trying to do here. The landowners hold the hammer. They’re the ones that are going to let us into their back yards or not.” 

Some new residents have appealed to Friends of Five Creeks for guidance shortly after moving in, according to Susan Schwartz, the organization’s president.  

“Many homeowners have been doing a wonderful job of keeping the creek,” Schwartz said. 

Schwartz hopes for an eventual creek-side trail, linking Tilden Regional Park with the bay. Schwartz cited a recommendation of Frederick Law Olmstead, the so-called “father of landscape architecture,” whose credentials as an expert in balancing urban and natural environments can be found in some of the nation’s most famous landscapes, including New York’s Central Park and the UC Berkeley campus. 

But first things first. The grant agreement will be signed this summer. Kier said $200,000 was the maximum amount, and that this project was rated very high.  

“We got cash and we got experts,” he said. “Codornices Creek is going to have its day.”