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Festival encourages clean watersheds

By Denis Devine Special to the Daily Planet
Monday September 09, 2002

At Civic Center Park, which appropriately sits above Berkeley’s underground waterway Strawberry Creek, poets and activists celebrated the importance of watersheds at Saturday’s seventh annual Watershed Environmental Poetry Festival. 

“Watersheds are the mainstream drainage patterns and define the contour of our hills and water,” said event director Mark Baldridge. “In addition to defining plant life and animal life, it defines our cultural life.” 

But as organizers reflected on how far efforts to protect watersheds have come, they acknowledged that environmental challenges lay ahead. 

“Technology has made people less aware of the physical world in which they’re living,” said Robert Hass, UC Berkeley professor and former U.S. Poet Laureate who founded the festival in 1996. 

Upstream of Civic Center Park, above the route of Strawberry Creek – which was diverted for the sake of road construction – folks waiting for the bus on Shattuck Avenue wondered what a watershed was. 

Further upstream on the UC Berkeley campus, where Strawberry Creek flows above ground before dipping beneath the downtown, yellow signs warn of a sewage spill contaminating the waterway. 

Saturday’s festival aimed to educate people about the sensitivity of watersheds and advocate for their protection. Local environmental organizations, their booths ringing the park, worked hard all day to find new recruits. 

Watershed as an idea, as a place is much better understood than it was in 1995,” said Pamela Michael, who founded River of Words along with Hass eight years ago. Events like the festival represented “sort of a stealth approach to watershed protection,” she said. 

“People take care of what they love and know,” Michael explained. 

The festival began with a three-block tour of Strawberry Creek as it flows under the concrete of the city’s downtown, its path marked by a blue line placed by creek restoration advocates. 

The advocates are working to “daylight” the creek – or remove the concrete and restore it to its natural state. Similar efforts created what is now Strawberry Creek Park where culverts once buried the running water. 

“There’s such a momentum behind creek daylighting and protection and restoration,” said Juliet Lamont, an environmental consultant who fielded questions behind the Urban Creeks Council table Saturday. “It’s the type of momentum you don’t want to ignore.” 

Lamont said she was disappointed that Berkeley’s City Council this summer opted to leave an initiative proposing fees for education on storm water runoff off the November ballot. 

She said the small tax would have funded a lot of environmentally beneficial programs – programs that might have prevented the pollution in Strawberry Creek. 

UC Environmental Specialist Steve Maranzana said backed up pipes caused sewage to spill into Strawberry Creek on the UC campus during the Labor Day weekend. 

“This is an urban watershed. It’s very different from a natural creek with all this development,” Maranzana said. “It’s really a challenge to keep an urban creek running clean.” 

Among the pollutants fouling the water on a semi-regular basis are automotive fluids leaking out of cars, lawn fertilizers and pesticides and solvents and soaps people use to wash their cars, he said.  

“If you go out to see the creek during the first rainstorm, you’ll see it soapy from all these cleaners,” Maranzana added.