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Creek Crisis Confronts City and Homeowners

Friday July 16, 2004

As Berkeley officials ponder revisions to the city’s ground-breaking 1989 creeks ordinance, city engineers have presented them with sobering news on the state of the underground concrete structures that enclose nearly half of Berkeley’s creek channels. 

According to a report presented to the City Council Tuesday evening, Berkeley’s buried creeks pose an increasing danger to 2,000 homeowners and already stretched municipal coffers. The report revealed that these creeks are channeled through decaying underground culverts, half of them on city property. 

“Creek culverts, both public and private, are reaching the end of their useful life,” said the three-page document signed by Public Works Director Rene Cardinaux. “[F]ailures will start to be experienced causing damage to the public right of way or to private property.” 

Berkeley is built on the watersheds of 10 streams with a combined length of 71,935 feet, according to the Cardinaux report. Nearly half the total—35,163 feet—flows through underground culverts, most built before 1920. The average lifespan of culverts runs between 60 and 80 years, and most of Berkeley’s underground channels have already passed the eight-decade mark. 

Further complicating the issue are the culverts built on privately owned land before 1928, when the city started requiring construction permits. 

Berkeley has already experienced several culvert failures, including two along Strawberry Creek, one of which occurred directly beneath Civic Center Park. 

The Cardinaux report examined one watershed in detail, Strawberry Creek between Oxford Street and the Bay, and located six areas of concern. 

The first trouble spot they identified was a 396-foot-long section starting at Oxford and flowing west along Allston Way. City engineers discovered erosion at the base of the culvert and found that the structure’s concrete in poor condition. 

“Lining is recommended for this section to give it additional strength and durability,” Cardineaux reported. “The estimated cost is between $5,000 and $7,000 per linear foot, or between $1.98 million and $2.8 million.” 

The decaying segment is located on both private and public property, and the city ordinance holds the property owner responsible for maintenance on their land. 

A second stretch, 140 linear feet at Allston and Harold ways, is currently slated for repair, with an estimated cost to the city of up to $500,000 and a maximum of $420,000 for repairs on private property. 

A third segment, 699 feet on public and private property between McKinley and Roosevelt streets, would cost up to $4.9 million to repair. A 567-foot stretch on public land between California and Sacramento streets would cost up to $4 million. 

Another 300 feet, on private land, would cost $1 million. 

Cardinaux also reported that a storm drain under University Avenue that serves both Strawberry Creek and the Addison Street drain pipe has started to corrode, with repair costs estimated at up to $11.3 million.  

Simply inspecting the underground culverts is a costly task, with a complete survey estimated to take five years at a cost of $500,000. 

The 1989 city statute, one of the nation’s first, has resulted in tensions between developers, residents, and groups calling for restoration and “daylighting” of the city’s creeks—many now shunted through underground culverts. 

The current ordinance bars development within 30 feet of the centerline of Berkeley creeks. 

Tuesday evening’s presentation came in anticipation of the Sept. 28 workshop where city officials and private citizens will discuss revisions to the 1989 statute. 

“We don’t even have a good list of the city’s creeks,” said Councilmember Betty Olds. “It’s terrible. I know there are creeks that aren’t listed, and some are listed that shouldn’t be.” 

But the councilmember could say no more, after City Attorney Manuela Albuquerque advised Mayor Tom Bates that as a citizen personally affected by the ordinance, Olds was barred from speaking. 

“There’s a whole district up in the hills with more creeks than any other and their representative can’t talk,” Olds protested. 

“That’s democracy,” quipped Bates, provoking a chorus of boos from the audience. 

“Just kidding,” the mayor responded. 

The most contentious issue was the ambiguous nature of existing laws when it comes to the cost of repairs to culverts on private property. 

“The major problem is that there are numerous houses built over creeks and on bridges. Our position is that because it’s private property, they’re on their own,” Bates said. 

Because of the large number of property owners affected by the ordinance, several councilmembers insisted that the city notify all of them prior to the September workshop. 

Replacing aging culverts and retrofitting others to meet seismic standards were crucial issues to property owners, said Councilmember Linda Maio. 

“We have to address the culvert issue and what’s reasonable to do,” said Councilmember Gordon Wozniak, who added that because of the extensive costs, daylighting all the city’s culverted creeks simply wasn’t an option. 

Councilmember Dona Spring urged that the September workshop be limited to two issues, restricting paving over culverted creeks without any current development and allowing affected property owners to rebuild structures after a disaster—which she favors. 

The ordinance currently bars any new structures within 30 feet of the midline of a waterway. 

The rebuilding issue was critical to homeowner Diane Crowley, whose house lies 30 feet above a culverted creek. “Who will offer me more than five dollars for my home if I have to reveal to them that they might not be able to rebuild after a fire or a quake?” he asked. 

“As the ordinance is written, they wouldn’t have the opportunity of rebuilding,” Bates said. 

Rebuilding would require zoning variances and approvals by city regulatory bodies, said Planning Director Dan Marks. 

“If there’s a disaster, this council will change the ordinance to permit rebuilding,” Bates said. 

Homeowners Bonnie Gergen and Bob Allen said they were disturbed that the original ordinance had been enacted without notifying all the affected property owners. “The process should include an environmental impact report,” Allen said. 

Councilmember Miriam Hawley said any revised ordinance should treat open and culverted creeks differently. “People on culverts may need to expand their homes,” she said. “It seems as long as the people know they’re on a culvert and are responsible for it,” they should be allowed to expand their homes. 

City Manager Phil Kamlarz told the council city staff wants “a war plan and a budget” to tackle creek repairs. When Bates and Maio suggested creating a citizen task force to examine and report on the problem, Kamlarz countered that “some task forces take three or four years.” 

Wozniak suggested using the city’s existing commissions instead, and urged the city to address the maintenance requirements of culverts on private property because the water flowing through them affects the whole course of a stream. 

“This opens us up for huge liability,” Bates responded. 

Spring said she favored the task force approach because it would add special expertise not present on existing city commission. 

“It will take some kind of citizen participation,” said Bates. 

The creeks crisis was then tabled until the September workshop.