The Berkeley High School Girls Crew Team will continue to paddle the waters of Lake Merritt for at least two more years, thanks to an agreement brokered by Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates and Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown.
The deal gives the rowers a reprieve at Lake Merritt, where last year Oakland Park officials seemed eager to sever their 20-year relationship with the team. Meanwhile, Berkeley will study the team’s effect on migratory birds that flock to the team’s hoped-for home in Aquatic Park.
The 48-member crew had set sights on the park for its new practice facility years ago, but a tussle with local environmentalists this spring put the brakes on a proposed ten-year lease with the city.
Sierra Club activist John LaForce and Golden Gate Audubon Society Executive Director Arthur Feinstein threatened to fight the deal unless the city commissioned an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) to study how the team could avoid scaring off migratory ducks and geese that rest at the park’s main lagoon. A full report could take over a year and cost the city up to $100,000.
Team officials were disappointed to lose out on the park. “Tom [Bates] says ‘Great, we have a compromise.’ But it’s not a great compromise,” said former team President Chris Noll. He said Aquatic Park, unlike Lake Merritt, would attract more kids who can’t commute to Oakland and provide enough storage space to house their four racing boats, three of which are slated to move to the park from the Berkeley Corporation Yard.
Key for the rowers, Noll said, would be Bates’ effort to secure an after-school practice slot at Lake Merritt so the team could practice for two hours. Currently, the team is slotted to practice between 6:30 and 7:45 a.m—which is not enough time to compete with top-tier programs, he said.
Candace Swimmer, president of the Lake Merritt Rowing Club, which rents space to the team, said she had no objections to letting the team practice in the afternoon, but noted that residents had complained to park officials about the girls making too much noise.
LaForce praised the compromise, saying it bought time for both sides to reach a compromise and at least temporally staved off a potentially combustible feud between Berkeley students and environmentalists.
“We were putting the Council in the role of ‘We have to split the baby here,’” he said.
LaForce and Feinstein fought the team’s Aquatic Park plans, citing a city-funded report that found the rowers would likely scare away migrating seabirds in the park’s main lagoon. According to the report by Richmond-based environmental firm LSA Associates, the boats would rouse birds from their resting spots, expending precious energy needed to feed and eventually migrate.
Under the deal, the city yielded to the environmentalists’ request to scrap its plan for a limited environmental study of the park and agreed to perform a full EIR. City officials hope to offset costs by combining the Aquatic Park study with an EIR to be conducted for nearby Eastshore State Park.
The team’s future remains murky. Oakland is planning to transform the Lake Merritt Rowing Club offices into a restaurant in the near future, effectively displacing all of the club’s tenants, including the Berkeley team. Bates’ spokesperson Cisco DeVries said Oakland officials had given Bates assurances that they would give the team the same preference as Oakland teams in finding a new location.
Last year, Oakland Parks Department Director Harry Edwards pushed to evict the girls to find more Oakland tenants.
Practice facilities are scarce. Noll said the team had explored several options, including the Port of Oakland and the Jack London Aquatic Center—where the Berkeley boys’ team practices—but found all the alternatives either too costly or already full.
Environmentalists and team officials met with Bates Saturday and pledged to coordinate efforts to find a compromise practice site.
“Now I think everyone sees the value of working together,” said LaForce.
Noll said he would cooperate with the environmentalists, but still considered Aquatic Park the team’s best option. “If they come up with a good location that would be a single location for the boys and girls close to Berkeley, that would be a permanent solution,” he said.