The Berkeley High School Girls Crew Team, desperate to make Aquatic Park the new venue to race their rowboats, squared off at the City Council meeting Tuesday against an environmentalist determined to defend the migrating seabird habitat at the park.
After listening to impassioned pleas from one environmentalist and several members of the 48-girl team—whose days are numbered at their Lake Merritt practice facility—the council showed little will to take sides, finally voting to postpone a $10,000 environmental study, a prerequisite for granting the team access to the park—while city officials make a last-ditch effort to find the team a different practice site.
“We are looking at the options,” said Mayor Tom Bates, who asked for and was given a one week delay on the vote. “I want to talk to people in Oakland and find out why they can’t stay.”
Until environmentalists raised objections in March, the planned move to the main lagoon in Aquatic Park seemed like a slam dunk. The city has recently sought new tenants for the West Berkeley park, which has suffered from a seedy reputation as Berkeley’s hotbed for illicit sex.
After years of discussions with the Parks and Recreation Department, the team agreed to refurbish and run the derelict boathouse at the lagoon for a token annual rent of $100.
“We felt confident the city wanted us there until the environmentalists sandbagged it,” said Chuck Knoll, team board member and father of a former rower.
Environmentalists insist the team would disrupt migratory seabirds, especially open water birds like ducks and geese that call the park home from September through April, the same months the girls would hold daily afternoon practices.
Boats frighten the birds, which then move to different locations, said Norman LaForce, of the Sierra Club. “That’s not good because then they expend tremendous amounts of energy when they should be feeding, and so they have less energy for migration.”
An independent study commissioned by the city this summer backed up LaForce’s claim. Richmond-based environmental firm LSA Associates found that the crew team would pose a greater threat to the birds than kayakers who already traverse the 1500-foot lagoon because the team’s 8-person boats travel faster and their oars reach further out into the water. The LSA report did offer suggestions to lessen the impact on the birds.
Despite the team’s 20-year run at Lake Merritt, leased for $7,000 a year, both Oakland politics and logistical issues have clouded their future there. Noll said the team agreed last year to leave by this fall after former Oakland Parks Director Harry Edwards pressured the Lake Merritt Rowing Club to find an Oakland tenant for the slot.
Edwards’ recent resignation has bought the team some time. Jim Ryugo, his interim replacement, said he had no immediate plans to force them out, but that he would have to give Oakland tenants priority.
Team members say that Lake Merritt is too far away and too small to accommodate the growing team. The boathouse only has space for one of their four boats, said Board President Karen Graul, so they keep their other $20,000 boats in storage and borrows boats from the rowing club. And since the team can only practice in the morning at the lake, there isn’t enough time to carpool the team to Oakland and get in a two-hour practice before the girls’ 8:30 a.m. class, Graul said.
Team officials call Aquatic Park their best and only hope. The Jack London Aquatics Center at the Oakland Estuary charges $20,000 per year and is booked solid, said Executive Director Dede Birch. The Berkeley Boys Crew team practices there, but has too much equipment to share their slot with the girls.
Efforts to lease a Port of Oakland facility for both teams have fallen through, according to Noll, and a proposed East Bay Regional Park development in San Leandro would cost more than the estuary, he said.
“Aquatic Park is best”, said Graul, “because kids can walk or bike there and it will be more accessible to those who can’t carpool to Lake Merritt at 6:30 a.m.”
The team had started to repair the boathouse early this year in anticipation of occupying it for this fall, but have stopped until Council gives them the go-ahead. The team is willing to abide by the recommendations in the LSA report and is offering to team up with EGRET to grow plants along the west shoreline to block encroachment from dogs and people when the birds are flushed to the edges of the lagoon during practice.
“We don’t want to hurt the birds, but we certainly think that rowers and birds can co-exist,” said Graul.
LaForce said LSA’s recommendations, which include prohibiting users in smaller nearby lagoons during practice and restricting visitors to the main lagoon shoreline, are unrealistic and won’t protect the birds.
He insists that by law the city must scrap its proposed environmental study and perform a full Environmental Impact Report to see if the city could implement mitigations to provide for both the needs of the rowers and the birds. Such reports usually cost up to $100,000 and could make any deal with the team cost prohibitive.
Jesse Douglas-Allen Taylor contributed to this report.