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Coordinator slot left up a creek?

By David Scharfenberg Daily Planet staff
Thursday January 03, 2002

Berkeley’s 14 creeks could be the next casualty of the economic downturn. 

The City Council, acknowledging the need for better maintenance of Berkeley’s waterways, unanimously passed a resolution Dec. 11 calling on city officials to explore hiring a creeks coordinator. 

The new employee would pursue grants from county, state, federal and private sources, coordinate among the various departments and agencies in Berkeley with jurisdiction over the creeks and convene a task force to determine the future of the city’s waterways. 

Councilmembers say they hope the city will be able to hire a coordinator, but warn that an uncertain economic picture could affect Berkeley’s ability to bring someone new on board. 

“It will be tough,” said Mayor Shirley Dean. “Nobody knows at this point what the impact of the various economic downturns will be.” 

In February, the council will consider adding the position during a mid-year adjustment to its budget. If the council does not reach a conclusion then, it will postpone the decision until the next fiscal year, which begins July 1. 

Activists have argued that the coordinator should be able to win grant money to fund the position, allaying budgetary concerns. They say the city only needs to provide some initial “seed money.”  

City Councilmember Kriss Worthington said that in the coming months, Berkeley city staff will investigate whether a coordinator could win a quick grant infusion to fund the position. 

“If it doesn’t appear likely that it will generate income anytime definitely won’t make it in,” said Worthington, raising concerns about an uncertain budget. 

Several activists said they believe the coordinator could begin winning grants in six months to a year. But Tom Kelly, a member of Friends of Strawberry Creek and a grants coordinator at the California Department of Health Services, said city officials should not expect grant money to fund the position in the near term. 

“Because of the lead time on grants,” said Kelly, “you’d need someone in there probably two years before they could start to underwrite the position.” 

Still, activists said that, in the long run, winning millions of dollars in grants would more than make up for the expected $85,000 annual salary of the grants coordinator.  

Berkeley’s creeks make up a significant portion of the city’s storm drainage system. Much of the rain water that flows from local streets drain directly into the city’s underground creeks, then drops into the San Francisco Bay. 

Codornices Creek and Strawberry Creek, the two Berkeley waterways that flow above ground over large swaths of land, also serve as recreation areas and wildlife habitats for everything from newts to steelhead salmon.  

City officials and local environmental activists alike say that Berkeley’s creeks need greater attention. The pipes, or “culverts,” that house the underground creeks are decades old and several are in disrepair. 

Pollutants like motor oil and soap enter the creeks through the storm drain system and eventually pour into the bay.  

In addition, erosion, invasive plant life and human rubbish in the above-ground creeks have disrupted the flow of the waterways and harmed animal habitats.  

A lack of funding has been a major reason for the current decay. Rene Cardinaux, Berkeley’s director of public works, says that storm drain fees, which run at about $50 for the average parcel, allow for only $150,000 to $200,000 in storm drain maintenance and improvements per year. 

“We don’t do enough,” said Cardinaux, who added that he will push for a ballot measure later this year that would increase storm drain fees. 

But activists and City Council members say a creeks czar would also make a difference, not only in winning grant money, but also in improving the profile of creeks within city government. 

“If you ever want an idea in this city to go forward,” saidDean, “you have to have, not only a community support group, but someone on the inside making sure the word is being heard.” 

Activists and city officials add that the coordinator would be helpful in bringing together UC Berkeley, different city departments, private landowners, the Berkeley Unified School District and others that have jurisdiction over various sections of the creeks. 

“There’s all these jurisdictions, and nobody is looking at the entire watershed,” said Janet Byron, founder of a citizens’ group called Friends of Strawberry Creek. 

Carole Schemmerling, East Bay Coordinator for the Urban Creeks Council of California, said she hopes that the coordinator will also aid in the process of “opening” underground creeks, or bringing them to the surface. 

Open creeks with heavy vegetation, she said, does everything from absorbing pollution, to raising the property values of nearby homes. 

The coordinator could be particularly helpful, Schemmerling said, in developing a plan to surface an underground portion of Strawberry Creek in downtown Berkeley, and using that plan to apply for grant money. 

But, the long-sought downtown waterway has its detractors. “I think that’s a pipedream,” said City Councilmember Betty Olds, arguing that it would cost far too much money and disrupt downtown traffic. 

“Everything costs more money than we would like it to, but it can get done,” Schemmerling responded.